Understanding the Complicated Role of Input Suppliers in Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services
Gary Alex is a former Feed the Future Program Manager at USAID.
Input suppliers are involved with extension and advisory services (EAS) programs in most countries and – like it or not – will continue to be involved as this is in their self-interest.
I admit to some personal bias toward input supplier EAS, as I worked with my father who was a farmer-agent selling seed, mineral supplements for livestock, and external parasite control systems for cattle. At that time (now many years ago), the most effective extension services that I saw were farmer evening seminars and county fairs – both organized by government EAS agents, but largely based on presentations and marketing information provided by input and equipment dealers.
Inputs are central to agricultural innovation and productivity improvement. Private input suppliers have largely replaced parastatals of the green revolution era and now provide an increasing volume of diverse products – improved seed and breeding stock, fertilizers, agrochemicals, feed, and mechanization. For input dealers with a long-term perspective, EAS helps in marketing their products and may go further to support clients’ overall profitability, thus building goodwill and relationships for future business.
But the picture is not all rosy. Input suppliers provide EAS to market their own products and must depend turn a profit to remain in business. This leads to some serious problems:
- Capacity issues – Capacity varies widely in input suppliers. Higher-level staff involved with product development and testing are likely to be at the cutting edge in knowledge of their product and their benefits. Field-level distributors may not have technical knowledge of the product, agriculture, or EAS methodologies, nor incentives or ability to them. This was found to be the case in several countries in a review of USAID EAS programs.
- Conflict of interest – Input dealers may knowingly or unknowingly sell inputs that are not in the farmer’s interest. Some may be “bad actors,” while others do so unintentionally. Dealers may sell “snake oil” products of no value, such as some “soil amendments”; counterfeit products; diluted or out-of-date chemicals; products unsuited to the crop or farming system; or excess product, at unprofitable levels of usage, such as fertilizer in parts of Asia.
- Coverage gap issue – Input dealers are unlikely to provide some services. They generally won’t have incentives or interest in promoting innovations that don’t involve sales of their products. Thus they have little incentive to promote management innovations, crops other than those that use their products, or inputs other than those they sell. They generally won’t serve clients that have no need or purchasing power for their inputs. These often include small and marginal farmers, women, minorities, and youth.
In farmer relations with input dealer EAS, the old dictum applies “caveat emptor” – let the buyer beware.
A recent survey of 28 USAID country EAS programs found at least 75 percent to be based on substantial input supplier participation in EAS. Many extended input supply networks to reach small farmers through village sales agents, hub-and-spoke input supply systems, retail networks, and group purchasing arrangements. Country approaches varied.
Guinea funded apprenticeships for youth with agricultural training to work with input suppliers and strengthen EAS provision while gaining private sector work experience.
Nepal shifted from direct support for individual agrovets to partnerships with wholesale agrovets, selling products/technologies through and supporting networks of retail agrovets. Training strengthened the technical capacity of the agrovet network to advise farmers.
Nigeria worked with a national agro-input dealer association to prepare Master Trainers to equip “New-Generation Agro-Input Dealers” to provide effective private sector EAS to smallholders.
South Sudan activities facilitated farmer-input supplier fora in which relationships between farmer cooperatives and input suppliers promote use and access to inputs.
Uganda supported an Anti-Counterfeit Task Force to increase farmer trust in the input supply chain. Radio programs sensitized farmers on the issue; a Regulatory Compliance Handbook for Agro Input Businesses improved input dealer understanding of regulations; and an E-Verification system helped ensure product authenticity.
Zambia introduced various models for input firms to engage “community agents” selected by communities to serve as input dealers linking smallholders with input suppliers.
Future EAS systems will undoubtedly feature an expanded role for private input suppliers. Public programs, policy, and strategies should help ensure the quality of input supply-linked EAS, rather than provide unsustainable subsidies for such services. Activities might:
- Strengthen the overall input supply sector by improving the public policy environment, promoting sound business plans, and improving management and logistical systems to encourage profitability as a base for provision of EAS.
- Promote understanding of good business practice, quality of services, and professional ethics, as relate to input supply and – where appropriate - encourage certification systems for input quality and for private EAS quality.
- Expedite access to training and technical support for input suppliers generally working through input dealer associations rather the individual companies.
A positive development would likely be that of public EAS providers serving more as wholesale EAS providers for input dealers that in turn provide retail services to producers. Input suppliers are clearly an important target client for EAS programs.