When the county government of Nyeri invested Sh23 million in the purchase of additional vehicles and motorbikes to enhance the mobility of extension officers, there was the hope of increased agricultural production in the region.
The project governor Mutahi Kagwe launched in May 2018 saw his government buy more cars and motorbikes that were to be distributed to extension officers with a view of making their work of being intermediaries between research and farmers much easier.
However, four years down the line, the project appears to have hit a dead end. Reason? The aging officers, especially in the department of the veterinary who were the main targets of the project, refused to ride the bikes saying they were too old.
They also said they feared contracting respiratory diseases by riding motorbikes.
The project was expected to benefit 234 extension service officers across the county.
Unfortunately, the department is grappling with an aging workforce with most officers declining the idea of motorbikes.
As a matter of fact, the entire county government is grappling with an aging workforce said to be affecting services offered to the public.
Currently, the county has over 4,000 workers aged between 24 and 59 years. Close to half of the workers (40 per cent) are over 55 years.
Health and agriculture departments are the most affected with 56 per cent and 30 per cent of their staff, respectively, being over the age of 55.
Over the last seven years, at least 100 workers have exited the agriculture department through retirement. Some have exited through natural attrition, with the livestock department being the hardest hit.
Currently, the entire livestock department has only 16 staff left with some expected to retire in the next two years.
The department has 22 motorbikes that are currently being used by newly recruited interns who are literary running extension services.
The ratio of farmers to extension officers in Nyeri currently stands at 1:2,000 against the Food and Agricultural Organisation's recommended 1:400.
The majority of the livestock officers in charge of meat inspection in slaughterhouses, veterinarians, and other extensions services such as insemination and vaccinations have retired.
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So dire is the situation that out of the eight sub-county meat inspectors, only two are still in service, putting a strain on the slaughterhouses which cannot operate without their services.
County agriculture minister James Muchiri confirmed that one meat inspector is currently working in up to four slaughterhouses.
“All meat slaughtered in the county must be inspected. After the officers retired, we had to hire more staff and so far, we have employed 35 staff mostly in the livestock department,” said Muchiri.
He said that the government has been forced to go back to the drawing board after the elderly extension officers refused to use the motorbikes.
“We had to come up with a more practical way to improve the working environment for our staff. That is why we purchased more vehicles for the department,” he said.
Muchiri said the future of extension services is in technology and partnerships that can support these services.
“Gone are the days when extension officers had to travel physically to your farm to offer support. Now, farmers can access the information they need on their mobile phones or through our call centres which are manned by experienced agricultural officers,” said Muchiri.
He added: "The role of government should be to regulate and standardise the information reaching farmers to ensure it is accurate."
The agriculture department has since promoted over 200 officers in the last three years.
One of the challenges the county faced is that as a former provincial headquarters, the government absorbed a high number of employees most of whom were already on their way to retirement.
National government policy employees nearing retirement were stationed in the provincial headquarters while new employees were posted to district headquarters, away from home to gain experience.
The national government had also frozen hiring of employees in the late 1990s and early 2000s which has also affected services to the public.