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Is lack of extension services hurting agriculture?

FINANCIAL STANDARD
By | August 23rd 2011

By Vincent Bartoo

 

Not too long ago, Kenneth Tobosei, would watch his father welcome officers from the Ministry of Agriculture to their home in Elgeyo/Marakwet County in Kenya. They would accompany his father to their farm and spend time looking at the livestock and the crops, often advising him on the fertilizers and food to buy.

“That was in the 1980s. They would advise my parents on the best agricultural practices then and later make follow ups to review progress,” he says.

Back then, Kenya was self sufficient in food and even had surplus produce for export to neighbouring countries.

“But this cannot be said today. Farmers like me have been left to operate like gamblers. The Government does not really care whether we make it (in agricultural investment) or not,” claims Tobosei, who has become a farmer.

Despite contributing more than half of the country’s GDP, bringing in about 60 per cent of export earnings, and 45 per cent of Government revenue, the sector has been neglected in the recent past.

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Today, the closest a farmer can get to extension services is the ad hoc field days. Many farmers have taken to keeping an ear on the ground to find out where the next agricultural field day will be held.

 

Field days

The field days allow public and private extension service providers to converge under one roof to offer as well as sell expertise and inputs to farmers.

“I attend the field days to try and enrich my agricultural knowledge and also buy inputs that are usually sold there,” says Tobosei.

Many farmers rely on field days to get agricultural extension and advisory services.

This follows the Government’s decision to scale down extension services, owing to the high cost of the service. The field days are largely organised by private companies in collaboration with Government line ministries.

But most farmers attending these field days are not well informed, leaving them open to exploitation from the commercial companies that sponsor the events and compete to offer expertise and sell farm inputs.

“The risk here is farmers can be exploited through sale of irrelevant inputs and farming techniques by some companies whose motivation is to beat competition and just raise their sales,” says Kenya Cereal Growers Association (CGA) CEO, David Nyamieno.

 “Although the field days are good, they do not address the specific needs of farmers,” he adds.

Kipkorir Menjo, a Director with the Kenya Farmers Association (KFA), admits that the Government always plays second fiddle during the field days. As a result, farmers are denied genuine extension and advisory services.

 

Recoup expenses

The official said the companies, who pay to participate in the field days, ensure they recoup their expenses as well as make profits by ensuring they get buyers for their products and services.

 “At the end of the day, it is all about which company has made the most of the field days and not what farmers have gained,” adds Menjo.

The situation was birthed by the Government’s National Agricultural Sector Extension Policy (NASEP), developed in 2005, which opened up extension and advisory services to private sector players. At the time, the State cited the high cost of running the extension and advisory services as one of the reasons for re-drafting the previous policy of the 80s to accommodate external stakeholders.

The new policy laid down operational guidelines as well as safeguards that are intended to ensure the interests of all stakeholders are catered for.

 But Menjo argues that there policy should have been strengthened before the Government allowed the private sector to roll down their commercially oriented field days down to rural farmers.

“We are not saying it is a bad policy. But it needed to protect the farmers first. As it is now, the companies’ interests come first,” he says.

The impact of the lack of personalised extension and advisory services was brought to the fore in 2009 when prolonged drought led to the failure of the maize crop, Kenya’s staple food.

 “We rely on rain fed agriculture and I think 2009 taught us that it is time we changed and embraced irrigation as well as crop diversification,” says Barno.

Eldoret West deputy District Agricultural Officer incharge of Extension services, Mr Philip Okado, admits that there are challenges facing public extension and advisory services to farmers including shortage of personnel to undertake the work.

 

Local officials

“The ratio today is one extension officer to about 1,000 farmers. So the door to door approach of the 1980s cannot work today because of population increase,” he says.

Okado adds that the Government had to adopt locational provision of extension services to try and address this challenge.

“An extension officer is attached to a location and in collaboration with the location chief, organises a meeting with farmers to impart knowledge,” he says.

But he concedes that these meetings are not popular, since farmers find the field days organised by private companies that are more appealing.

“The Government does not have the money to mount aggressive campaigns to woo farmers to attend the extension meetings,” says Okado.

The official adds that the allure of seeing physical demonstrations of farm inputs and services in the field days gives the private companies an edge over Government extension services.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development says the Government should consider contracting the private sector to offer extension services.

“Contracting does not eliminate the Government role which in addition to funding, ensures quality assurance, oversight and provision of training and information to contracted services provider(s),” it says.

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