Extension and the Public Sector
During the 20th century the implementation of agricultural extension services was narrow. Governments had researchers, research needed to be brought to the masses, and workers were hired to do just that. This model was very much public sector-driven, and focused on disseminating information on best practices and supporting the transfer of technology.
And while this model was well-established, public spending in the agricultural sector varied widely across different regions. In Africa, spending tended to be very low, which in turn limited the availability of programs like extension services.
Today, such government-led extension programs are still popular, but the most successful of these programs have altered their approach in some way, particularly in their embrace of new technology.
In 2008, the Moroccan government initiated the Green Morocco Plan (Plan Maroc Vert), a multifaceted policy package aimed at encouraging sweeping change across the country’s agricultural sector. The country’s previous set of extension services largely focused on production techniques, plant health management, and quality control, but the reforms under the Green Morocco Plan integrated other aspects. The plan sought to develop areas such as professional organization of farmers, economic and project management, information on state aid and incentives, labeling, marketing, packaging, and processing.
Additionally, the Moroccan government enlisted the help of donors and technology partners to drive the use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in agriculture. In 2012, for example, IBM collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture to develop a cloud-based system through which expert and institutional knowledge related to agriculture could be shared with farmers, who could also receive training. The system allowed for officials to keep track of their outreach efforts, while also making it easier for government agencies to share information with one another.
This approach is particularly well suited to a country like Morocco, which hosts more mobile phone subscribers than people. The impact of these phones and the applications they enable in the agricultural sector has been substantial. Studies from 2007 indicate that farmers with mobile phones were more likely to deal directly with wholesalers or larger-scale intermediaries. This helps make the agricultural value chain more efficient.
Across the continent in Ethiopia, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and its Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) have also developed several initiatives to increase farmer productivity, especially for several “priority” crops targeted by the government. While these programs use traditional extension service methods, like in-person training, the Agency also makes smart use of technology. In 2014, for example, the Agency launched a hotline for farmers to call for agricultural advice and crop-specific tutorials. The free, voice-based hotline makes sense in a country in which literacy rates are very low, as is access to the internet. According to a recent report, the service has been well received, having registered one million callers in its first year of operation.
Extension and the Private Sector
Historically, technology and skills transfer programs driven by Africa’s private sector have concentrated in export-oriented industries such as sugar, coffee and tea. However, when it comes to non-cash crops, skills-transfer programs have been lackluster or non-existent.
Fortunately, this is starting to change, and perhaps nowhere is this change more apparent than in Kenya. Two important components of Kenya’s private sector are simultaneously booming—manufacturing and technology. The manufacturing boom means that farmers have the ability to form better, more sustainable market linkages. Technology expansion means that the country is host to a wide array of tech companies approaching extension services in innovative ways.
Kenyan dairy giant Brookside puts an emphasis on extension services. The company has a 44 percent market share in Kenya’s dairy market, with growing export markets throughout the rest of East Africa and increasingly in the Middle East. The firm has about 160,000 farmers supplying milk to the company, and this list continues to grow thanks to aggressive outreach programs and an ability to guarantee a consistent market for producers of a product with a short shelf life.
Brookside succeeds largely because the company continues to overcome challenges inherent in small-scale milk production: seasonality of production, substandard provision of inputs and veterinary services, supply chain fragmentation, and a lack of animal husbandry skills and knowledge.
Brookside created programs that help address such problems. It holds regular “field days” for its farmers, during which they are trained on husbandry practices, and kept up-to-date about new developments in the dairy industry. Brookside also provides artificial insemination services and facilitates farmer access to high-quality drugs and feed for their cows. The company has a team of trained agricultural personnel to work with and educate farmers. These services are provided to dairy farmers on credit, which is then deducted from their milk earnings. This is a system which ensures ease of use and the sustainability of extension services.
Kenya’s combination of high literacy rates and mobile phone penetration, alongside its ongoing tech boom, have saturated the domestic market with mobile applications—including applications with an agricultural focus. One of these applications, targeting dairy farmers, is iCow. This internet, SMS, and voice-based application provides a multitude of valuable services to farmers. It offers tips about breeding, suggestions regarding animal nutrition, and help with connecting farmers to veterinary and artificial insemination services. In addition, iCow essentially allows farmers to create a detailed, personalized profile for each of their cows, offering features like customizable gestation and immunization calendars. The service costs farmers three Kenyan shillings (KES) per text ($.03), and its enthusiastic and growing subscriber base indicates that farmers find value in and are willing to pay for these services.
Thanks to these thriving extension services, Kenyan dairy production is growing more efficient. Combined with market liberalization, extension programs have helped dramatically boost domestic milk production and satiate growing domestic demand for dairy.
African governments have historically lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of the services they offer their farmers. But a renewed emphasis on public spending for agriculture, the proliferation of affordable technology which makes the provision of extension services easier, and the increased ability of the private sector to step in to provide these services all offer reasons to be optimistic about the future productivity of African farmers.