Future extension: What will it be?


by Kristin Davis | December 20, 2019

Question: What do you get when you put a mix of researchers, policymakers, and practitioners together in a room to discuss the future of extension and advisory services?

Answer: A dynamic, interesting debate with new insights into challenges and opportunities for the field.

On November 7-8, 2019, the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) and the Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) project organized a knowledge event on extension and advisory services. The purpose was to share recent evidence on innovations in extension and chart a course for the future extension research and approaches.

What did we hear these two days and what does it mean for the future of extension? Here’s what I saw as key takeaways.


First, this is not your old extension service. We expect much more from extension and advisory services today – natural resource management, human health, social well-being, resilience, climate change adaptation; extension has to deliver more in a dynamic world. As a result, extension needs multifunctional approaches where program staff educate farmers, broker relationships, link producers to markets, and sell products and services. This implies new capacities.

It also requires a holistic approach that considers intersectionality and heterogeneity. We need to consider many aspects of extension clientele: age, gender, race, caste, social group, intrahousehold dynamics. And these different groups are not homogeneous and need tailored support.

To deal with multifunctionality and intersectionality – and recognizing the existence of multiple types of extension providers today – we discussed complementarity and optimization of resources – which actor plays which role best? How can we leverage the private sector and maximize their investments? There is complementarity in terms of different providers but also in terms of different approaches. Digital methods in extension do not completely replace traditional methods, but amplify them and make the work of extension agents more efficient. Private sector does not replace the public sector; it complements the public sector depending on specific country needs. To ensure complementarity and optimization of resources, we need sharing of data, better coordination, and new, creative communication tools such as WhatsApp groups that provide for affordable and effective two-way flows of information between farmers and service providers.

How can extension and advisory services systems work better? Several mechanisms, incentives, and tools were discussed. There is a general lack of capacity and incentives to perform in extension and advisory services. We can use technology to link extension provision and performance. We heard research results on a number of topics –video mediated extension, farmer volunteer approaches, performance-based incentives, using social networks for diffusion, private sector engagements, farmer business schools, participatory approaches in intervention prioritization, voice messaging, use of self-help groups in India, use of radio, and  coordination of messaging in a highly pluralistic setting in Malawi.  Several papers presented showed that incentives and social networks speed up diffusion of innovations. We talked about how to maximize social learning for behavior change. These elements should be considered in future programs.

Speaking of the future, extension offers opportunities for youth. We talked about “agripreneurs” and that as we engage youth, we need to look across the whole value chain rather than just focusing on basic production. There are opportunities for those who like to get their fingers dirty and for those who like the “shiny objects,” (that is, digital technologies!). But questions remain on how best to engage young people as both providers and recipients of extension services through necessary multiple support systems – information, education, land, production inputs, credit, and processing facilities.

Finally, impact data are critical but lacking in the field of extension, or they are generic and static. At the same time governments and funders need to measure the impact of their investments. We need short and long-term indicators of progress and means to show effectiveness and efficiency of our work.

In the end, it’s about telling the story. Communication is so central to what extension and advisory services do. How can we be better communicators with farmers, policymakers, and investors? Let’s tell this compelling story well, using data, using new communication tools, considering intersectionality!

I may have asked as many questions as I answered in this look back to the future. But don’t worry, we’ll have a chance to discuss further at the upcoming DLEC Annual Community of Practice Meeting “Envisioning the Future of Extension” March 4-5, 2020 back here at IFPRI!

Also read: The research-practitioner divide: Why we are still optimistic

Kristin Davis is a Senior Research Fellow in the Development Strategy and Governance Division of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and a co-director of the Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) project.

Photo credit: Kristin Davis