Policy Imperatives for Digitalized Agricultural Extension
Knowledge is key in agricultural development, which is vital to economic development and the attainment of food security for all. We rightly anguish about sufficient and efficient investment in the creation of pertinent knowledge through agricultural research, publically and increasingly privately, nationally and internationally (such as through the CGIAR, long strongly supported by USAID).
But how often do we anguish about getting relevant knowledge into the hands of the billions of small-scale farmers in the developing world? It was thus heartening to see the timely attention to the topic at the recently concluded event, Envisioning the Future of Extension, hosted by Feed the Future and several partners in Washington, D.C. Some 30 participants from some 15 countries, mainly East and Southern African, braved the risks of contemporary international travel to bring diverse experiences together to inform what can and should happen in the future of this critical aspect of development.
Policy itself was not the explicit focus of this event but the topics addressed were central issues for agricultural policymakers around the world as they ponder how best to meet the future challenges of agriculture globally. Among the themes discussed were: Providing Extension and Advisory Services in a Changing Future, Systems Approach to Strengthening Extension, Strategies to Engage the Private Sector, Women, Youth and Minorities, and How to Best Exploit New (especially Digital) Technologies, and Institutional and Organizational Management for the Future, including Strengthened Learning and Evaluation.
With rapidly growing access to information and communications technologies (ICTs) in rural areas of the developing world, extension workers are increasingly adopting digitalized approaches to help deliver information on new technologies. Participants at the event had the opportunity to learn of some of the exciting novel methods being developed, tried, and applied by Digital Green in Asia and Africa. Some of these new extension models have been explained such as knowledge sharing between farmers and SMS messages.
The big agricultural extension policy themes demanding attention today are how to assure quality of information and how to achieve inclusive access. These are among the issues being addressed by the Rutgers University Feed the Future Policy Research Consortium. Since the outset of advisory services, the relevance and quality of services provided has always been a challenge. Much of the issue relates to the adequacy of the preparation and continuing education of extension staff in the technicalities and economics of agricultural practice, and these challenges persist in the knowledge management communities of today.
For digitalized extension, the biggest “risk” relates to socially equitable access to high-quality extension services. Investment in enabling policies for telecommunications infrastructure in rural and remote areas to enable good quality and predictable rural connectivity will be fundamental. Access to connectivity for smallholder farmers and service providers will enable better access to services and digital solutions. Investments related to the development of digital skills will be critical in all sectors, including within public agricultural extension services and their clients.
To realize the full potential of digital extension, it is vital to avoid deepening a “Digital Divide” by means of adopting some targeted investment policies. In particular:
Invest in telecommunications infrastructure for rural and remote areas, perhaps through making greater use of long-standing but seemingly much underused institutional innovations such as Universal Service and Access Funds.
Invest in digital skills development for most people but especially for those engaged in enhancing agricultural knowledge platforms, including research organizations, extension managers and agents, would-be rural entrepreneurs, traders and farmers, and, of course, the young who in due course will move into these roles.
Invest in oversight mechanisms that can monitor digital developments in the food and agriculture sectors with an eye to ensuring the quality and authenticity of information in digital systems (especially those used by farmers and extension services, public and private) and the privacy and safety of all engaged in such systems. Development of such mechanisms requires novel thinking and careful analysis.
Digitalization of agricultural advisory services is happening rapidly in much of the world, but agricultural policymakers must devote imagination and effort to ensure that all rural residents can benefit from emerging digital technologies and farmers everywhere can be better served by digitally-enabled extension work.
Reference Anderson, J.R. (2020), Agricultural Extension Policy: A 2020 Re-Vision. Working Paper, Rutgers University Feed the Future Policy Research Consortium.