[NAIROBI] A severe lack of extension workers in Sub-Saharan Africa could be partially filled by new information and communication technology (ICT) tools, a conference on extension innovations was told.
Africa has one extension worker per 4,000 farmers, compared with one per 200 hundred farmers in developed countries, the conference, Innovations in Extension and Advisory Services: Linking Knowledge to Policy and Action for Food and Livelihoods, heard last month (15-18 November).
But this gap could now be narrowed through the use of ICT tools including mobile phones, the internet and iPods, combined with more traditional media, such as radio.
Michael Hailu, director of the Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation, in the Netherlands, said that, even where there is no shortage of extension personnel and funds, smart use of ICTs can help deliver knowledge in real time to farmers, especially in poorly staffed and remote corners of Africa.
"The continent must try to be as innovative as possible and exploit the growing mobile communications sector to deliver knowledge," he said. "ICTs such as mobile phones are helping farmers to increase production, discover new markets for their produce and gain access to new knowledge and technologies."
The conference declaration called for a greater use of ICTs and the media in the provision of advisory and extension services, which should also take into account culture and gender issues.
But Hailu cautioned that it would be a big risk for governments to continue neglecting recruitment of extension services workers, because ICTs could not fill all the needed services.
Hannington Odame, director of the Centre for African Bio-Entrepreneurship, in Kenya, also pointed out that ICT usage has its limits and that training farmers and agro-stockists would help meet needs.
"ICTs can only provide information on straightforward things or offer static information, but where follow-ups are required and the needs of farmers are varied, you cannot help but use personnel," Odame said. "This may come in the form of well-trained farmers or even stockists who sell chemicals and inputs to farmers."
He said diverse sources of information were needed to enable farmers to attain maximum productivity and profitability, a consideration that may call for setting up a farmer information system.
Mary Kamau, director of extension and training in Kenya's agriculture ministry, said the country had established the National Agriculture Information System under the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Program, where farmers can access information from their mobile phones through toll-free numbers.
Investment in agriculture extension services needs to increase to 3.5 per cent of the agriculture gross domestic product (GDP), according to Magdalena Blum, of the Food and Agricultural Organization's Office of Knowledge Exchange, Research and Extension.
She added that no African government is spending even a tenth of the recommended 3.5 per cent, even though agriculture continues to contribute more than 30 per cent of the continent's GDP.
Link to conference declaration [135kB]