Information can be a powerful resource for farmers, especially if the information reflects farmers’ true needs and ambitions.
However, one of the perennial weaknesses of the system has been an inability to offer services congruent to farmers’ needs. This is because the extension environment does have inherent tensions, and these tensions make extension a hard business.
Extension conceived as an information resource is premised on the existence of (curated) information that is known to provide a good basis for farmers’ decision making. Extension’s problem will be one of dissemination. However the problems have increased in view of internal and global developments.
Change-: The major problem occurs when the (curated) information bank no longer adequately serves purpose because of changes in the farming system, climate change or changes in client profiles. In Zimbabwe all three have been seen, and this puts considerable pressure on the extension services to reform.
Plurality-: Plurality refers to the fact the agricultural system has so many players now (Hanyani-Mlambo, 2003). It is no longer conceptually useful to refer to the “extension system”. Rather, the term now in common use is the “agricultural innovation system” to account for the expanded number of players and increased complexity within the system. The system is now a mishmash of interested players, some with diverging interests, and is becoming increasingly obvious that there is need for intermediary roles among those diverse interests.
Externality-: One of the problems of neo-classical economics is market failure, particularly the problem of externality. Externality refers to tensions between private benefits and public costs. The issues around environmental sustainability, equity/distributional problems, are questions which cannot be left in private hands. Greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, overgrazing, microbial resistance, pest control, food standards etc are legitimate issues for policy intervention. The question is: is an extension department the right department to police this? What kind of remedy should be chosen?
Some possible solutions
This is not an easy problem, and no one can claim to have complete answers. For one, the bureaucratic leg of the system (agricultural education, extension, research) has its own interests that it will defend. It would be logical to surmise that the system is manned by people whose (presumed) interests are in status quo maintenance. With that in mind, here are some considerations.
1. Invest more in smaller numbers of highly trained personnel and leverage ICTs- This has already been tried in the Vet Department HQ through a Call Centre (in partnership with Econet). They could go further and systemically analyse farmers’ questions to form the basis for a strategic digital information database.
2. Rethinking extension function-: in light of the plurality, there is need for intermediary roles. These roles are being played right now, but they may need institutionalising (Klerx et al 2012). If you remember the “zvihuta” scandal, you can imagine how corrupt or selfish elements can easily mislead and exploit gullible players within the system. Extension may have to play the role of the intermediary, but that requires a 360 degrees change of extension philosophy and attendant modus operandi. Possible, yes. Probable, not without some facilitation.
3. If the above points are taken as true, then the need for re-training or re-orienting current and future extension workers is obvious. New/changing/expanded roles call for expanded competences. I would venture to add that making use of the comprehensive competence-based education philosophy as the basis for the training would give ideal results, not the usual subject-driven curriculum theories (Wesselink et al 2010).
It’s clear that current problems in the Zimbabwe agricultural innovation system require some holistic programmatic intervention. Leveraging ICTs in the form of a strategic information database accessible to the agricultural innovation system would be ideal. Finally, a skills upgrading of current and future extension personnel would be crucial. And all this need not be very expensive.