Malawi’s agriculture extension system at a crossroads: Two perspectives

If agriculture is the main lifeline for Malawi, then agriculture extension is the blood, the fuel for the engine. 

IFPRI/M.Mitchell 2016

In other words, without a functioning and adequately resourced extension system, agricultural growth has no path forward. In fact, during the extensive consultation process to develop Malawi’s first National Agriculture Policy in 2015, extension services were highlighted as the most important priority area for increasing agricultural productivity.

This is an especially critical time for agriculture extension in Malawi—with a thorough assessment of the country’s agricultural extension policy (developed in 2000) recently completed, and the development of a national extension strategy just underway. Malawi’s extension system is now at a crossroads. Can a new strategy, along with commitment from donors and government, contribute to the thriving extension system that farmers in Malawi desperately need?

On behalf of IFPRI-Malawi, I spoke to two individuals closely embedded in and passionate about Malawi’s extension system, to learn why this is such a critical time, and whether the new strategy has the potential to truly pave the way for sustainable agricultural growth in this country.

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I met with Professor Daimon Kambewa, Associate Professor of Extension Studies at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and former Head of Department of Extension Studies at Bunda College. In his role, Kambewa not only trains the next generation of extension workers, but he also plays a part in developing agriculture extension curricula for the country. Most recently, he was invited to join the team of experts who reviewed the government’s agriculture extension policy.

Having worked on agriculture extension in Malawi for so long, what do you see as the biggest roadblock right now in the current extension system?

The biggest roadblock is our collective mindset. We are stuck in the traditional extension approach of ‘technology transfers,’ which is apparent throughout the current extension policy. We desperately need to shift our thinking to a more innovative and interactive approach—what some are calling ‘the new extensionist’ approach. It brings together different actors (i.e. farmers, agro-dealers, private sector, etc.) to collaboratively address farming problems—something truly demand-driven that doesn’t just simply solve problems, but offers tools to understand how to solve problems.

What is your ‘wish list’ for the forthcoming extension strategy?

  1. First, is capacity-building. A successful extension strategy needs to highlight capacity at several different levels, but mostly, facilitation skills. Frontline staff and lead farmers must be able to not only deliver information, but also encourage and facilitate groups of farmers, to better organize their demands.
  1. Next, we need to see clear and strong support from local government, to raise the profile of agriculture, especially at the district level. This must extend beyond support to the Farm Input Subsidy Program, which is like a life support machine that keeps farmers breathing, but does not necessarily help them rise above survival-level—something a good extension system can.
  1. Next, the strategy should emphasize the use of Information and Communication Technology, or ICT, to add much-needed depth to message delivery. In order to truly adopt a technology, recipients need reinforcement (ideally, a physical presence) to help ensure information received is interpreted and used correctly.
  1. Lastly, to improve adoption of technologies, we need a mechanism in which farmers can learn in better ways, and effectively use and share the information they receive. Currently, extension workers tend to be highly trained (and specialized) and visit communities for short periods. While the government should not relax in terms of training frontline workers, we also need to see extension workers who are actually embedded long-term in the communities where they serve.

 As someone who directly trains extension workers, what do you think is needed most: highly trained extensionists who visit short-term, or lesser trained frontline workers who are embedded in communities?

Previously, extension ‘certificates’ were a sufficient qualification for providing extension services, which meant many of the frontline workers came from –and remained—in the communities they served. In a way, by requiring diplomas, the new system ended up depriving communities of those who are more likely to stay.

One option is for government to recognize those with extension certificates, in addition to those with higher certification (who can, perhaps, serve in district level posts). There is room (and need) for both skill-levels and roles.

Are you optimistic about what comes next?

Throughout my career, it has been my passion to find ways to examine and improve how extension should be done. I have been optimistic for much of this assessment process, but unfortunately I need to see more government buy-in (of the feedback, and of proposed changes to the extension system) as well as a greater openness to a new approach, in order to feel hopeful that things can and will change in this sector—especially if the implementation and coordination will ultimately lie within the government itself.

Nevertheless, I (along with many others) will continue to share IFPRI’s study results and our assessment report in dialogues about extension, with the hope that this evidence and input can guide how extension is managed in Malawi moving forward.  

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I also spoke to Nikolas Bosscher, Deputy General Representative of the Government of Flanders, considered to be the donor championing extension here in Malawi, having long prioritized extension support in this country. It started in 2008 with support to agriculture extension capacity. The largest chunk of financial support since 2009 is being provided to the extension department under the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Water Development. This support is currently being channeled via a pool fund, the Multi-Donor Task Fund (MDTF), comprised of seven donors, including Flanders. In 2012, Flanders commissioned a baseline study and in 2014 a monitoring study to measure the status of extension in the country. This led to co-funding (with GIZ) of a rigorous series of recurring national extension studies led by IFPRI-Malawi through a three-year project, Assessing and enhancing the capacity performance and impact of the pluralistic agricultural extension system in Malawi, which started last year in August 2016. In all of this experience, Mr. Bosscher and his colleagues have observed a few things about the evolution of extension in Malawi.

Tell me about changes in donor and government buy-in for agriculture extension that you have observed as one of the original supporters of extension in Malawi.

Well, it’s true that we have long prioritized extension in Malawi. It is the current focus of our five-year strategy program, and we’ve earmarked at least half of our (25 million euro) budget to extension alone. This prioritization also means that we want to see concrete results, hence our funding of the IFPRI-led impact and demand studies every two years.

After gaining experience and positive impact in the field, there was increasing interest and political will surrounding agricultural extension from the government side. The Minister of Agriculture at the time wanted to strengthen agriculture extension and called on Flanders to see what could be done. Following a discussion, they agreed to develop a clear strategy for extension, but first needed more understanding of its current status.

In the past two years alone, several donors have gained more interest in extension, including the EU and USAID, in addition to GIZ, who co-funds the ongoing IFPRI study. The MDTF has financed the extension policy review (which has wrapped up), combined with the extension strategy development (now underway), a critical next-step to guide the extension process, and ultimately, to guide impact. Ideally, information generated by the rigorous IFPRI studies will feed into this process to ensure that the strategy is evidence-based.

What big conclusions came out of the recent extension studies and policy assessment?

Well, the studies confirmed some things we already knew. First, the government is the biggest organized extension-provider in the country. In other words, most farmers still get their agriculture advice from government, although other organizations and means, such as radio, mobile phones, NGOs, etc. are gaining in importance.

So, we know the government is playing a key role in implementing extension services, but the study findings indicate that they should take a much more proactive and strategic role when it comes to coordination and regulation of extension services. This includes coordinating the geographic reach of extension services and coordination and consistency of messages being delivered, in addition to their mode of dissemination (i.e. radio, video, extension agents, etc.). The study showed us that raising awareness is a critical (and currently overlooked) first step before jumping into actual extension service delivery. All of this is where a well-informed strategy can help the government increase the impact of its extension services. This will require the government to take a step back, overview the extension landscape, and consider at what level (or levels) they need to coordinate and regulate the information that is getting out to farmers, and how.

In terms of demand, there is one camp that says farmers do not know what to ask, and another which believes there is clearly demand from farmers, but extension workers are not capacitated enough to respond to demand. This is where we need bridging—to find the correlations between demand and supply—and IFPRI is doing a good job so far in finding out how this bridging could be realized. 

One thing I know is that, in order to meet demands, extension workers must be knowledgeable in a broad range of agriculture techniques (more than their current capacity) and should not specialize too much. Capacity is needed, not just in the knowledge itself, but also in the delivery approach. For the system to function, extension workers must be able to properly facilitate and encourage farmers to continue spreading knowledge amongst their peers.

What needs to happen now and are you optimistic?

Currently, our focus is on further disseminating these latest findings—both to government (to help inform the forthcoming strategy) and to other donors and programs working in extension (to help guide their ongoing work). This is a continuous process, and continuous dialogue.

In the end, I am quite convinced that the new strategy can, and will lead to changes in extension systems. The challenge is how to make that process (of a functioning national-level extension system) leaner and more cost effective. The good news is the process has started and we have to keep this momentum ongoing, which will depend on donors continuing to prioritize and fund extension, and on research opportunities, like the current one with IFPRI, continuing to generating evidence on the status of extension. 

 

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