By Thulasizwe Mkhabela
JOHANNESBURG – Governments have scaled down their direct involvement in agricultural extension. In developed countries, extension services – often dubbed advisory services – have largely been privatised and farmers have to pay to access it.
In South Africa, there is a general consensus that the system has declined or at worst collapsed.
Researchers have also noticed the declining value that publicly provided agricultural extension services have contributed to the sector and this has manifested itself in the burgeoning literature on farmers’ willingness to pay for extension services in a user-pay approach.
Against the foregoing background, it is only logical that farmers who have to pay for services
should have a voice when extension goals and means of delivery are discussed. Thus, supply driven extension becomes demand driven or market driven advisory.
Agricultural advisors do not only have to bring relevant knowledge and technologies to farmers but they also have to ensure that problems are brought to researchers, who can work towards feasible and economical solutions thereby buttressing the relevance of applied research juxtaposed with basic research.
Agricultural extension has become more pluralistic, with different actors concurrently using different approaches and methods. Hopefully, this will lead to a generation of custom-made, environmentally friendly and economically sustainable solutions based on farmers’ involvement in agricultural innovation systems.
In the past, private agricultural advisors could only be paid by wealthier, more prosperous farmers and by corporate farms. With the trend towards privatisation, the roles of public and private extension has had to be redefined.
Where promoted technology or practice is associated with a public good such as farm management or marketing information, the delivery of extension advice is best handled by a judicious combination of public and private role players.
If a common-pool of natural resources such as soil, water and air, community forests, fisheries, communal pastures is involved, it is highly beneficial to connect the advisory activities with cooperative or voluntary action overseen by the public sector to ensure adherence to pertinent regulatory frameworks.
Where market failures are high and subsistence farming, for instance, dominates, a public sector approach to agricultural extension is required.
In any of these scenarios, it remains the responsibility of the government to ensure that agricultural advisory services adhere to quality standards, which should be clearly stated in the contracts provided by chosen extension providers.
Thus, the role of the state in the provision of agricultural extension services cannot be denied.
Private sector extension existed long before governmental extension systems were heavily curtailed, leaving a vacuum in many areas.
Private extension firms hire the best public extension services advisors, as they are able to pay more and provide better working conditions.
Firms that process farm produce into higher value products, such as canned, dried or frozen foods allow contract farmers to follow strict production methods. In return, the agribusiness offers extension advice and guarantees to buy the produce, often guaranteeing a minimum price Input supply firms often include pre-sales advice and sometimes ongoing extension advice as part of their services.
They have the advantage that their personnel can specialise in a specific field compared to the field extension workers of public extension providers. Then there are marketing chains that often indicate what produce they prefer, for example, organically grown vegetables or other specified products that may fetch higher prices.
The most effective and economic means to spread specific extension messages is through campaigns, using well publicised meetings at demonstration plots and appropriate mass media. This emphasises the need for any extension service to have direct and vibrant linkages with the creators of knowledge and technology through applied research. In South Africa, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) remains unparalleled as the premium applied agricultural research entity.
Forging stronger linkages between the extension services, be they public or private, can only benefit the sector.
A good and well-function extension service does not only render advice to farmers but can also play a role in the monitoring and evaluation of projects and intervention programmes through providing lessons learnt from failures and successes of implemented programmes.
Dr Mkhabela is an agricultural economist and group executive for impact and partnerships at the Agricultural Research Council.