Agricultural extension has comparative advantage over other professions of similar weight. This is due to unique working relationship with farmer groups. In this piece, MAKINDE OLUWAROTIMI writes on why government’s agric initiatives need to focus on extension services.
Throughout human history, civilisations have depended on agriculture for their survival. However, as soon as they neglected their land resources -agriculture, industries collapsed and consequently, the civilisations also collapsed.
The ancient civilisations often cited as the best example include Mesopotamia, Mayan and the Roman Empire. In Africa, the classical examples include Zimbabwe and Guinea. Both countries were exporters of food to other countries in Africa, but when they neglected their agriculture at some point, they were no longer able to produce sufficient food for export.
The United States of America (USA) is one of the best known examples of a nation that has, in recent times, become a world super power on the basis of strong agriculture, and as a result, has developed its strong industrial, economic and political development
To this end, agriculture experts, Professors Mohammed Othman and Emmanuel Ekanem of the National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services, a university based institute, under the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, say that economic diversification through the agriculture sector without a strengthened and effective agricultural extension service would be almost impossible.
“Agricultural extension service,” Othman defines, “is the application, use of tools to transfer knowledge from where it is generated to where it is to be used.
“It is the process of packaging and taking the developed technology or innovation to farmers, in the language they understand, and the repackaging of feedback from the farmers on the outcome of the use of technology or innovation to research institutes in a language they understand, in order to address challenges, advantages or disadvantages for improvement.”
Presently, Nigeria’s agricultural extension agents to farmers’ ratio stands at 1:18,000, against the recommended 1:800. The 37 Agricultural Development Programmes (ADP) has received no funding since 2018, and there are inadequate modernised tools, and barriers to information sharing between extension agents and farmers.
The history of funds sliding for ADPs, Ekanem notes, started in the 1980s when the World Bank ceased its funding of ADPs Training and Visits (T&V) Extension programme, which aims at driving knowledge and information in agriculture. The programme deteriorated without counterpart funding from the federal and state governments.
Today, while the federal government has taken some steps to address the ineffective extension services system through the recruitment of 133,000 manpower in the NPower Agro Scheme in 2017 and 2019, state governments’ disinterest in supporting the project beyond its two years life cycle leaves to chance the continuation of the little progress made.
In a country known for mismanagement of public funds, the abandonment of public projects, low budget appropriation to the agricultural sector, absence of modernised farming tools, and the lack of maintenance of the few existing agricultural machineries, the sector holds no attraction for Nigeria’s youth.
The limited availability of technology and high cost of ICT services has made information sharing, update on agricultural production either slow, ineffective or non-existent.
Othman, who is involved in the National Farmers Helpline Centre (NFHC), says the centre, established by the federal government to boost direct contact between farmers and extension workers, as well as tailored information exchange between the two, is bedeviled by zero toll free services, and the difficult integration of the centre’s shortcut line 1442, the latter of which some poor farmers cannot easily afford.
Efforts by the centre recommending to the National Communications Commission (NCC), the support of the NFHC by Telecoms industry, yielded no practical results.
“We are not asking NCC to impose on Telecomms companies because they are not public-owned. We are rather appealing for rebate (discount) in call rates for farmers different from the normal call rates,” urges Ekanem.
Transformation processes in Nigerian agricultural sector puts extension in a spotlight for service delivery. Extension officers can make significant contribution in rural development provided they are guided by specific policies.
For example, food security is often defined in terms of food availability; food access and food utilisation but food availability is achieved when sufficient quantities of food are consistently available to all individuals within a country. Such food can be supplied through household production, other domestic outputs, commercial imports or food assistance.
Food access is ensured when households and all individuals within them have adequate resources to obtain appropriate food for nutritional diet. But effective food utilisation depends on knowledge within the household of food storage and processing techniques.
Successful food security and poverty-oriented programmes do not only assist poor rural populations to produce more diversified products, but to also produce a surplus that can be marketed and thereby, generate income for the purposes of improving quality of life through improved diet and nutrition.
Extension officers have received training, which combines technical knowledge and communication skills. They can apply this knowledge to help in improving farming, farm yields and thereby, reduce poverty.
Farmers and communities have little urge to conserve resources unless they are forced by legislation. An extension officer does not use force but known strategies of persuasion to assist farmers and communities to conserve natural resources.
Again, extension officers usually persuade farmers to adopt new practices mainly because they have access to research and its results. They have received proper training that can be executed to benefit the farming communities. Extension officers have access to different information needed by farmers in terms of production, cultural practices, markets and marketing. Depending on their tasks, they can broaden it if possible to include farmer education and problem solving advices.
According to Othman, what extension will disseminate to farmers include: – technology transfer; offering economical advice (including book-keeping); developing agricultural markets and informational system; developing small enterprises and discovering new alternatives for obtaining profits.
One of the tasks of extension is the emphasis on developing the human capital, enhancing his or her capacity to make decisions, to learn and manage the communication process with others, to analyse the environment, to be a leader, to stand up to oppression and to organise.
It is quite a challenge to see many government projects that are not sustainable as soon as the government withdraws its support, they then become “white elephants”. Experience has shown that the problem is linked to ownership and group dynamics. Issues of ownership are best understood once farmer groups are trained. Extension officers are well trained to deal with human behaviour. Once they apply their knowledge, projects will have a better chance of becoming sustainable.
The objectives of rural development include growth in local domestic output-income generation, employment creation, and improvement in income distribution within a limited geographical region. Other proponents of development suggest that the “empowerment” of local citizens is the most appropriate goal for rural development.
Extension will strengthen the human resource capacity of poor farmers’ organisations, as well as the self-help group capacities to access useful extension services. This is because there is often inexperienced governance and leadership in many of the resource- poor farmer groups.
Extension officers can play a role in empowering poor farmers to gain access to capital, either through savings or credit. Since they are well trained in terms of local organisational development, they can build farmer institutions, organising farmers into associations and commodity groups and other forms of co-operative activities.
Ekanem recommends the privatization of the agricultural sector as one of the most efficient means of to addressing Nigeria’s irresponsible attitude towards public funds and wastage.
He notes the inculcation of ethics courses on attitude to public funds and properties in schools’ curriculum will go a long way to engendering a responsible mindset in Nigerians. This is in addition to calls by Nigerians for the involvement and support of institutes of mechanized agriculture in the maintenance of abandoned agricultural system, and the development of tailored agro-machineries fitting the nation’s terrain and climate.
On the part of government, Ekanem calls for increase in budget allocation to the agriculture sector to 10 per cent, and the early release of budgeted funds in line with the sector’s time-based seasons and climatic conditions, if its serious about the diversification of the nation’s economy.
Federal and state governments, Othman and Ekanem note, can strengthen agricultural sector for economic diversification through the provision of rebate on call rates in support of the NFHC located across six zones in the country. State governments, they urge, should invest in supporting the NPower Agro Scheme extension workers to ensure continued growth of the agricultural sector.
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