The Varied Roles of Extension Services Provided to Farmer Organizations for Food Security

It is official, I am moving to Pujehun district located in southern, Sierra Leone for a few months. I will be consulting on a project that aims to improve the food security of people living in poor, rural communities in West African countries to ensure that they have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

I will be consulting on one part of the overall system to contribute to,
a) Increasing the effectiveness and use of agricultural extension services (government, NGO) by training extension staff in planning, implementing, and monitoring and,
b) Provide business support services to farmer organizations, and strengthen them for the adoption of good agricultural and livelihood practices.

Here, I want to explain the value farmer organizations have for food security and the importance of the different roles extension services have.

Why Agricultural Extension?

Agricultural extension historically has been about technology transfer, through an extension staff transferring knowledge from research stations to farmers by using individual, group, and mass media methods. Farmers gain this knowledge and improve their practices to produce greater yields. The obvious link between this to food security is: an improved and greater yield of food crops, such as rice leads to more food available.

However, making more food available in communities is only one part of the food security story. Mostly because you cannot grow everything you wish to eat. Also, there is often times enough food available, but the most hungry cannot access it. Food can be inaccessible because of,
•Poor infrastructure & natural disasters (I cannot physically get to the markets where food is sold);
•Food is too expensive (I cannot afford / have the cash to buy food);
•Social/cultural norms (I cannot leave the house alone or I can only interact with certain actors in certain markets);
•Violence and corruption (I do not feel safe when buying food because of potential threats from others);
•Poor health systems (I am too sick to get food and process it);
•Lack of information (I do not know where or when the food is sold or what the standards/rules are);
•Inadequate support institutions (I do not have the capital needed etc.)
Source: Angela Mwaniki, ‘Achieving Food Security in Africa: Challenges and Issues’

The goal of improving productive yields is only one dimension of food security. I would argue, more importantly, access to food, varied markets (not just food markets, but also agricultural markets) and overall livelihood development (employment generally) is critical for food security. Bearing in mind the issue of nutrition is much more complex as this requires improved health, water and sanitation systems beyond agriculture or livelihoods.

More recently, agricultural extension has varied roles to improve availability and access to food, markets and overall livelihood development. Some of the roles include,
Human Resource and Empowerment role: help farmers and rural communities organize themselves and take charge (empowerment) of their growth and development.
Community-Organizing role: understanding the structures, by-laws, rules will help leaders to plan, implement, and monitor their own livelihoods. Helping communities to build, develop, and increase their power through cooperation, sharing, and working together to negotiate and interact with other markets.
Problem-Solving and Education role: helping farmers and their communities to identify problems and seek the right solutions by combining their indigenous knowledge with other knowledge and by using their resources properly.
• And most commonly…Technology Development role: by linking research with community group needs and helping to facilitate appropriate technology development
Source: Shankariah Chamala and P. M. Shingi. FAO. Chapter 21 “Establishing and strengthening farmer organizations” in Improving Agricultural Extension. A Reference Manuel

Extension staff learning from farmers about their technology, not just the other way around

Extension staff learning from farmers about their technology, not just the other way around

Rice Sheller - simple technology, but critical for agribusiness development

Rice Sheller – simple technology, but critical for agribusiness development

Why Farmer Organizations?

Farmer organizations give farmers bargaining power in the market place, enable cost-effective delivery of extension services, and provide a space for empowered members to influence policies that affect their livelihoods. Private sector organizations establish farmer organizations to reduce the cost of dealing with farmers, enhance the volume and quality of farm produce, and improve credit recovery from farmers. Governments establish farmer organizations to improve rural service delivery. National policies aimed to help rural people become organized even provided blueprint structures in the form of cooperatives and commodity organizations.

Problematically however, extension staffs traditionally have never had training in the theory and principles of community organization or skills in the process of establishing these organizations. As a result, many farmer organizations were established overnight on paper and remained only active during the period that government subsidies were distributed and not beyond this. Today, the elite tend to capture the services and resources, while the poor and marginalized are left out. Very few attempts are made to develop the management capacities of farmer organizations leaders, their members, and extension staff. This is where my work comes in.
Source: Wilhemina, Quaye; Ivy, Yawson; Tawiah, Manful John; Joseph, Gayin. (2010) ‘Building the Capacity of Farmer Based Organisation for Sustainable Rice Farming in Northern Ghana’ Journal of Agricultural Science 2.1 :93-106.
Source: Salifu, A., Lee Funk, R., Keefe, M., and Kolavalli, S. (2012) ‘Farmer Based Organizations in Ghana’ Ghana Strategy Support Program. IFPRI Working Paper 31. August

Extension Staff & Farmer Group Training Session

Extension Staff & Farmers Training Session, where everyone role plays being a women in a women’s farming organization. I made the real life female farmers the decision makers for 2.5 hours and you should hear them challenge others and make difficult decisions for planning a business!

Rural bank account application example

Rural bank account application example

What I hope to Accomplish

My aims are to build the capacities of farmer organizations: rice farmers can actively create cooperatives, partnerships and mobilize local resources independently.

I also hope to strengthen the varied roles agricultural extension staff have in strengthening the potential for community empowerment, human resources and problem solving. I will be training extension staff in modernized techniques for engaging with farmer organizations that are based on learning by doing, visual educational techniques, and participatory action and facilitation. This includes understanding the rules and governance structures needed for sustainable and functional collective action through farmer organizations.

Why In Sierra Leone?

When people think of Sierra Leone, the not so comforting images of Blood Diamond spring to mind (where Leonardo Di Caprio was heard coining the term TIA –This Is Africa- remember?). But it has been 10 years since the end of the civil war, and the country has made progress. This is why the Government’s focus has shifted towards agricultural sector development. In 2010, the Smallholder Commercialization Program was launched to support smallholder farmers’ linkages to markets through farmer organizations, subsidized inputs and infrastructure rehabilitation. Rain-fed upland rice dominates food supply and tree crops supply the bulk of Sierra Leone’s agricultural exports and domestic palm oil consumption, but many trees were destroyed during the war.

This agricultural focus has come out of the destruction from the civil war when significant proportion of the rural population became marginalized from productive land. Institutional structures were destroyed, including much of the road networks, input materials etc. It is hard to imagine a place with no national water supply, sewage system or electricity grid, where everything runs on a generator, but that is Sierra Leone today.

I have had the opportunity to travel to meet the staff in Sierra Leone for initial needs assessment. I was amongst several organizations that pitched different tools for change and it was what I had to offer that the staff opted in for and thought was worth investing in. I will keep you posted on any progress made.
Source: Binns, T., and Maconachie, R. (2005) ‘Going Home in Postconfilct Sierra Leone’. Geography 90. 1: 67-78.

Project Staff & Farmer Group Representatives

Project Staff & Farmer Group Representatives


8 thoughts on “The Varied Roles of Extension Services Provided to Farmer Organizations for Food Security

  1. Siera,
    First of all, I wish you the best of luck and keep safe. I read through your various posts and it is quite refreshing to see your dedication to this field and careful thought. I especially enjoyed your struggle / thoughts on volunteerism vs getting paid. In so many ways, Paid Development Worker is an oxymoron. We all struggle with it.

    I’d like to offer a observation from over 30 years of professional experience about the importance of communication. If a person doesn’t have the means (technical or otherwise), feels repressed and is unable, or can’t find anyone to listen, then you have the foundation for malaise and stagnation – if not even worse.
    I’ve just recently left a private company that produces inexpensive, satellite based devices for 2-way texting and emailing. I’ve done this because over the last few years in places like East Africa, Ghana, Pacific Islands, Columbia, etc. etc…. I continue to find organizations and local people concluding that communication is as important as food, water and shelter. At a high level, it needs to be present at 3 levels:
    1. Within a village
    2. Village to village
    3. Village to the rest of the World – including the district health or ag office, political organizers in the regional / national capital…

    Sometimes technology has a role in enabling this – especially as you move outside the village.
    But it is never the first consideration.

    Two other quick observations:
    – Understanding the existing informal and formal organizations is the fastest way to understand the current strengths and weaknesses of the local communication network.
    – Information is gold. They who have the gold, rule the kingdom.

    Most sincerely,

  2. Dear Cream – thank you for pointing me to the SID resource, I would have missed it otherwise.

    Dear John – I welcome and appreciate your 30 years of experience. For me, communication is all about what an agricultural extension service staff is about. Not just provision of technology but interacting with people, communities etc. That is why I am dedicating this work not just to business capacity, but group strengthening and communication / advisory techniques. This is really where the tool that I am implementing has impact.
    Also, you make a really good point about how communication is not just one way – extension / technology to a farmer or a village, but there needs to be a back and forth. Technology has a role in this, but it is not everything or even the most important in my opinion. You can have all of the communication technology available, but if people are not empowered enough to use it than it is useless.
    Informal and formal organization is key!! I am going to keep an eye out for any forms of collective action and build off of that. I do think it is much more organic and therefore sustainable, but not necessarily.

    Thanks again,

    • Dear Macelo,
      I think the role of technical innovation is important, but not the complete answer. Some professionals are under the impression that we do not have technologies that are appropriate (low cost, simple, easy maintenance) for local impoverished people. I disagree with this. I think we have been developing technologies for 30 years now and have not gotten very far because of assumptions made about what a farmer wants or needs. When a farmer does not choose to adopt a ‘good innovation’ it is because the farmer does not value it enough to take a risk and use it. Historically farmers are then accused of being lazy / ignorant / naive, which I think is very arrogant and naive of the ‘experts’. What is not accounted for is the possibility of a farmer’s rational decision that might be different than what the ‘experts’ think it is. All in all, I do not think we need new technical innovations, but new innovative approaches to providing technologies with an understanding of what the farmers want and need. These needs might go beyond the technology itself to include the context in which they are working in. Many technologies have been adopted in the past and many have not, it depends on the context, situation, circumstance. I would invest less in innovations development and more in qualitative research about a farmer’s wants / needs and context.

      This is where systemic development comes into importance. A farmer is an individual located within an agricultural system which is located between a food system which also has intersecting systems like extension systems that make up, interact with and effect other systems. There are many players in these systems like transportation, banks, supermarkets etc that all interact and depend on each other. You cannot simply provide technical innovations to a farmer in one district and assume the innovation will work in all other contexts. Also, providing those technical innovations does not improve the system they are imbedded in than ultimately the technical innovation is due to fail since the system does not support it. You can think of simple, low cost, easily maintained irrigation pumps. This is not new technology, but has not been adopted by the majority of populations in Africa. There are many reasons why, but one could be when that pump breaks down there is no system in place for maintenance / management etc. So it is no longer used and dropped. When an NGO / project leaves than no one uses the pump anymore. We need a system with processes to ensure there is constant feedback between farmers, research institutes, government and businesses to put in place what is needed so the development industry no longer has to exist in that place. Providing technology does not do that, it in some ways is just a handout which could create a dependence.

      This is a simple answer but you can see more information about this systems approach by Engineers Without Borders Canada:
      Or see this link:
      Or this link :

      • Dear Sierra and colleagues,
        I asked about innovation and you thought it was technology, innovation system is an aproach that goes beyond the technology, it as also to do with social, organizational and institutional innovation. I agree with you that the lineal approach was developed to assist the farmers, but what we need are systems functions that are related with innovation brokers and influent the wider context to reduce transaction costs and facilitate all type of innovations.
        We have a nice and real experience with this approach in Bolivia and there is also a lot international publications about this approach.
        Kind regards.

      • Hi Marcelo,
        I am glad to know we are on the same page. It is too often assumed that innovation = technical innovation (which is why I jumped the gun there). That is why I advocate for ‘innovative approaches… with an understanding of what the farmers want and need’. For example the program / tool I manage called Agriculture As a Business is to me an innovation – in that it focuses on building the capacity of extension staff in soft skills development AND uses principles of participation, facilitation and other adult learning techniques to strengthen farmer groups and build their business capacity. This is very rarely done. It is not just about providing business training and group formation. To me this is an innovation on classic farmer group models and capacity building programs.

        But this is where the term innovation is confusing and I think needs to be rebranded. Is this term innovation / concept do we just mean anything that is new? done differently?

        Who are the best innovation brokers? Are they research institutes / government / farmer organizations / businesses / all of the above? it could literally be anything/anyone. To me they are learning organizations that are able to deal with complexity in programming

        Would love to know more about your approach in Bolivia do share!

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