Cultivating Success: Is the Jury Still Out on Demand-Driven Extension Services?

Like smallholder farmers everywhere, Kenya's rely on crops for income and food security. But both are threatened by pests, diseases, and a lack of the knowledge and information needed to fight them. An estimated 40 percent of crops worldwide are lost to pests, threatening local, national, and global food security. For decades, agricultural advisory services have tried to meet these beleaguered farmers’ information needs, but have gotten caught in a dilemma that invites controversy and limits success despite heavy investment.

What happens is that agricultural information to farmers is a public good so most farmers have free access and the private sector has little incentive to provide general extension services except where high-value crops are grown and “big" farmers are the main players. That leaves the vast majority of farmers out of the loop and out of luck, even though smallholder farmers account for 70 percent of the world’s agricultural production so government and non-profit agencies have a key role in providing extension services.

A little history shows how this situation came about. From the early 1970s into the 1990s, the training and visitation system (T&V) dominated. Visited every other week, a fixed list of contact farmers were expected to transfer technologies to other farmers in their villages. But this large-scale and hierarchical approach required numerous supervisory and field extension staff, making it costly and financially unsustainable without significant external funding.

More specifically, the T&V system focused too narrowly on a few key crops and on disseminating simplistic messages, mostly on general agronomic practices. Another problem was lack of accountability for the quality of service delivered and the lack of impact measurement—both of which meant there was scant learning about the technologies and conditions that might lead to success.

After these problems were recognized, other types of agricultural advisory systems emerged to address the T&V system’s weaknesses. Many newer approaches are more demand driven and emphasize the need for extension services to meet farmers’ priorities for a larger variety of crops and plant health problems.

One such approach in Kenya that AIR is currently evaluating—Plantwise—works with national governments to set up plant clinics, like those for human health, where trained plant doctors provide farmers with practical science-based diagnoses and advice on preventing and managing crop loss. Supporting this network of clinics, the Plantwise Knowledge Bank offers an online and offline gateway to diagnostic services, pest tracking, and best-practice farmer recommendations specific to every country.

Results from the first year of the evaluation demonstrate that Plantwise alters the governance structure by facilitating greater interaction: Farmers visit extension agents rather than vice versa. Also, the focus is riveted on pest management issues, not agronomic practices in general. Farmers go only if they face a particular plant health issue so extension agents need to travel to fewer farms, which should keep costs down.

Combined with eradication schemes and farm-level advice, Plantwise’s unique system of pest and disease monitoring through data collection also holds promise for pest management. The data provide a snapshot of emerging pests, the relative importance of pests, and the pests farmers are struggling hardest to control.

The downside? Interviews with farmers and extension agents in the program reveal that many farmers do not know about the Plantwise yet. Also, the uptake of recommended practices is not widespread and the knowledge bank is not widely known or used. Nor have officials yet made plans to adopt the Plantwise method once program funding runs out.

On balance, preliminary results of the evaluation—in its second of four years—indicate that Plantwise is having some positive effects on farmer well-being. Farmers in treatment areas report in focus groups that they trust the advice from the trained plant doctors more than that of other extension officers or chemical dealers and that clinics in centrally located markets are particularly handy. Farmers also say that clinic-recommended practices have solved their plant health problems.

These qualitative insights, combined with results on changes in farmer yields and practices from Year 1 quantitative data, will deepen understanding of how this well-received and innovative program can implement simple changes to expand the promising model’s reach, scope, and impact.

More generally, governments and development agencies should keep investigating and, where evidence supports it, investing in programs that, like Plantwise, support smallholders’ demand for knowledge on pests and diseases. Food security for millions is at stake.

Juan Bonilla is a senior researcher at AIR. Andrea Coombes is a researcher at AIR.

Juan Bonilla
Managing Economist
Andrea Coombes
Principal Researcher