One of the big problems facing the improvement of agriculture in poor areas is that governments and aid donors have cut back on their support for extension systems. Extension agents are people who transfer new ideas and approaches that have been shown to work to the farmers who might benefit from them, and they’re a dying breed. This year’s World Food Prize winner, Gebisa Ejeta, said recently to the US Senate Foregin Relations committee that the lack of a sustained approach to extension was one of the biggest factors in holding back rural farms. Into this gap, some people have suggested, should step private enterprise and philanthropy.

Now I’m not saying that state-funded extension agents don’t have an axe to grind, but it seems obvious from first principles that the private sector’s axe is bigger and needs more grinding. So if you were a private company, and you did want to get into the extension business and be loved for doing so, you might think it would be a good idea to design your service to be above suspicion. Here, then, are the major conclusions of a study into one such system:

The paper finds a number of weaknesses on how the programme was conceived, designed and implemented in agricultural extension as follows:

  • the programme was seen to have evoked outmoded and largely discredited approaches to agricultural research and extension

  • the programme was designed and implemented in a top-down, expert-driven mode which aimed to facilitate a one-way transfer of technology from Xxxxxxxx’s laboratory scientists and plant breeders to farmers

  • the selection of focus crops themselves was determined primarily by the products and technologies Xxxxxxxx had to offer and wished to promote, and the selection of districts and villages was shaped by the market development priorities identified by sales managers

  • the need for farmers to adopt new technologies and commercial approaches to farming were regarded as axiomatic steps in the process of “development”, so that farmers’ role in Xxxxxxxx’s implicit vision of development was essentially a passive one.

I’ve edited out the name of the private sector player, but I bet you can guess.

My conclusion: don't hold your breath waiting for anyone but the public sector to plug the extension gap properly.

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