This is getting to be a habit

A jaundiced look at agricultural advice in Africa

Over at the other place I moaned a bit about the prevailing approach to the fact that African farmers do not seem to be clamouring for the latest technical developments.

There is no funding to promote these new technologies to farmers, and ... AGRA was spending US$50 million to fund a network of agro-dealers that will make the technologies available closer to the farmers and arrange for demonstrations.

I suggested that beefed up extension systems might be a better solution, or at least worth a try. As ever, Back40 Gary over at Muck and Mystery took me to task for sloppy thinking.

Historically and logically no solution is sustainable that depends on perpetual external funding, or that depends on centralized institutions.
Extension services work when they are controlled and funded locally. Otherwise, not. It's a matter of incentives and allegiance. An extension agent hired and paid or otherwise employed at the will of outsiders has no incentive to serve local needs, even when that is the job description.

He’s right, of course. And this is getting to be a bit of a habit. I dash something off, but I don’t take it to its logical conclusion or express all the ideas swirling around behind the dashed-off piece. And Gary comes along and points out what a sloppy thinker I am, and I generally have to agree, simply because he is right.

I could whinge about how I honestly wish I had more time to write more considered posts. It's easy enough to link to something interesting, but writing real thoughts well takes real time that, given the demands of the day job, I don’t often have. And then I come back to the original idea, often with something additional, and maybe make more sense.

Gary’s right that merely being an extension agent doesn’t guarantee that you will actually help farmers to increase their yields. Not if you’re a time-server. But if you have a genuine desire to help your friends and neighbours, being paid and equipped to do so might help. And a country that had a genuine desire to help its people would ensure that the funds remained available, just as it tries, no matter how ineffectually, to ensure that funds are available for teachers and schools.

I know the devil is in the detail, but the details are not that difficult, given the desire.

The additional thought that came to me, though, expands on my notion of giving farmers vouchers that they can exchange for advice. I happen to have made a microloan through Kiva, and recently received the news that my loan is available for reinvestment as each installment is paid back, rather than only at the end of the loan period when it has been returned in full. That’s good, because it keeps the capital circulating. So I’ve been looking around for another project I like the look of. And you know what? Nobody there wants a loan to purchase seeds or fertilizer or even irrigation equipment.

That may be because they don’t know these things are available. But surely Kiva’s field partners would have told them about such things if they were a good idea? My working theory is that the NGOs and the farmers on the ground reckon that these technical solutions are not worth investing in, not as a paying proposition anyway. 1 They’ll use them if they’re paid to, but not if they have to put up their own money.

Which brings me to Gary’s idea:

Skilled locals who develop new skills in association with agro-dealers can be seen as hybrids, a cross between an agent and a dealer. Sometimes they are called consultants. Some take part of their pay as fee for service, and part from commissions on product recommendations. The incentives and allegiances are split but they are further constrained by the need to maintain reputation. They can't make bad recommendations and expect to be patronized in future since growers would have no way to pay. No crop, no pay.

The idea of a consultant who takes money from both sides -- dealer and farmer -- strikes me as pretty precarious. Will they accept waiting to see whether their package has delivered before requiring payment? I doubt it. They’ll have been paid, and in any case, the failure won’t be the fault of bad advice. The operation was a success, but the patient died. Will they be impartial in their advice or will they, as we are warned to beware of in so many other walks of life, be tempted to push the package that earns them the most up front?

I’m totally in agreement with Wendell Berry’s sentiment that Gary quotes at more length: to have the land cared for, the people who live on it must want to care for it. To do that, and feed themselves better, they need sound advice and appropriate technologies. I think they would be willing to pay for that package, especially if it worked. And I think Gary would agree with that. I even happen to think it is realistic, though with that he may not agree.

  1. As an aside, it is dismaying how few of the projects Kiva offers are in real farming; food processing and retailing, yes, but not actually growing the stuff.  

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