Extension services: Is this why agriculture is hurting?
For close to 12 years, Ben Too has been providing agricultural extension services to farmers in Kericho and Taita Taveta counties.
Today, he is one in about 30 agricultural officers employed by the government to provide training, mentorship and linkages to more than 200,000 farmers in Kericho County where he has been working for five years.
Each extension officer in the county is expected to attend to 6,000 odd farmers, a task that Too says is impossible to perform. According to Mr Too, the extension officers are not enough to attend efficiently to all the farmers.
Too says the fact that extension officers are also not fully facilitated makes efficient engagement with farmers difficult. He says agriculture is hurting because the role of extension officers in the field has been relegated.
“It is not possible for one extension officer to handle more than 6, 000 farmers. Again, the few extension officers employed by the government are forced to sit on their knowledge in offices as no one is facilitating them to disseminate it to farmers,” Too says.
Grim as it appears, the challenge facing extension officers is not isolated to farming in Kericho ever since the government froze employment of extension officers in 2009. Research by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology indicate that the average extension officer to farmer ratio is 1:5000. This is way above the Food and Agriculture Organisation requirement that each extensionofficer handles 400 farmers. So what seems to be the problem?
The deteriorating extension service system has been blamed on the officers sticking to obsolete skills in knowledge dissemination, their wanting skills and little passion at their job.
Farmers interviewed by Smart Harvest said the role of extension officers is increasingly being taken up by quacks on social media, misleading sales people from manufacturers of farm inputs and NGOs.
Too old to work
One farmer decried the conduct of an extension officer who visited his farm.
“Knowledge and experience of the current extension officers is obsolete. They are out of tune with modern agriculture. They only visit my farm occasionally and I have this feeling that they come to learn and not to teach,” wrote Kiarie Nganga on social media.
Yet other farmers maintained that the government officers had become obsolete and that they were turning to other farmers who were accomplished in their different ventures for advice.
But Jeremiah Mbugua, an Agricultural Extension and Value Chain Analyst at JKUAT says extension officers are still relevant.
He says agricultural extension still holds an important role in providing new knowledge, innovations and information for informed business decision making in agriculture and bemoans the fact that the sector is recognised only on paper.
“Many farmers are hungry for extension services. Every day, farmers come to the university looking for advice on planting, harvesting, value addition and the adoption of various farming technologies,” he shares.
Mbugua says efforts to improve agricultural extension services were however thwarted by the low number of practitioners in the field.
“I have trained extension officers in Kiambu who are excited about their job. The problem is that there are very few of them,” he says.
He says many extension officers also lack technical skills, and were therefore unable to help farmers.
“There are some agricultural extension officers who still rely on what they learnt in school many years ago. Most of them do not take refresher courses to learn about modern farming practices,” says the JKUAT expert.
Lack technical skills
Apart from offering agricultural courses at different levels, JKUAT has also tailored programmes for individual as well as groups of agricultural extension officers. While some farming information is offered free to farmers who approach the university, some of these programmes cost Sh30,000 and take a minimum of three days after which the officers are awarded certificates.
Mr Mbugua blames agricultural extension officers who have failed to transition to new technologies in provision of extension services.
"Some extension officers still rely on the traditional farmer to officer face-to-face interaction. Though the approach is good, it is unreasonable especially where they have to handle thousands of farmers. Technology has made it easier to reach as many farmers as possible,” he says.
He urges extension officers to embrace the use of mobile phones where they can generate content and disseminate to a wider audience as compared to the traditional face to face interactions.
But according to Too, some extension officers are too old to embrace technology.
“Some extension officers are more than 50 years old and are mostly retirees. Some choose to stick to traditional methods of reaching farmers because they don’t know how to use digital platforms for communication,” says Too.
Adul Aggrey, who graduated from a local university with a degree in Agricultural Information and Communication Management says he has been working as an extension officer for close to 10 years.
While working in Garissa, Mr Adul says he attended to more than 700 farmers who were scattered on the shores of River Tana where they planted bananas and vegetables. Today, he works with the National Farmers Information System, a digital platform that provides farmers with online extension services. Farmers who log into the system access information on how to grow, harvest and manage losses in 29 crop and livestock commodities. The information is presented in the form of text, graphics, audio and videos. Adul says he is able to reach more farmers on the platform as compared to when he toured individual farms in Garissa.
“At least 35, 000 farmers can access the services in a month from Google analytics. This is way batter than when I used to do individual farm visits,” Adul says.
And Too has gone a step further to create WhatsApp groups for farmers where he shares knowledge in farming.
So far, he is an administrator in six WhatsApp groups that are always full of members who are eager to be taught different farming practices.
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