With an estimated 9 billion people to feed by 2050, smallholder farmers are key to delivering food security in the face of many challenges facing global agriculture.
The FAO estimates that global food production will have to increase by up to 70 percent in response to exponential population growth by 2050. The holistic approach of Rural Advisory Services (RAS) is a unique opportunity to address the combined challenges of poor yields, lack of access to timely and relevant information, market access, effective agriculture policies and training that hinder farmers for producing adequate and quality food.
Convinced of the power of networks and networking, the 3rd Annual Meeting of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) to be held in Manila, the Philippines from 25-28 September 2012 will bring together stakeholders to exchange experiences on RAS across regions. In addition, the global meeting will discuss GFRAS strategic directions and functions.
GFRAS Executive Secretary, Dr. Kristin Davis is upbeat about the meeting, the highlight in the RAS global calendar.
"Global agriculture faces some severe challenges in the near future, key words are food crisis, nutrition, climate change, economic turmoil and the role of smallholder farmers becomes in this context immensely important, they being the most numerous and also most vulnerable," says Davis adding that, "Science and research are important but technology alone cannot provide sustainable solutions. Many times the problems 'in the field' have to do with market access, information access, poverty/investment obstacle, social and society issues. RAS - in the GFRAS understanding - has the means and the potential to tackle all these aspects."
RAS activities include creating and supporting links between farmers' organisations and agricultural research programmes; supporting communities in setting up informal and formal rural organisations. In addition, RAS provides training and advice for farmers and agribusinesses and helps them improve their links with the value chain.
Extension services are essential to enable farmers to improve their practices and help them respond to emerging challenges. Knowledge, ideas, and skills gained through extension programmes can help farmers increase their productivity, reduce losses, and gain better access to markets.
The positive impact of extension services is well demonstrated globally. Whether through Farmer Field Schools, marketing training, or by using innovative technologies, knowledge sharing underpins sustainable agricultural practices.
Case studies from Mozambique, Mali, Peru, India, Madagascar and Kenya which were highlighted during Rio+20 Summit in Brazil in June 2012 illustrated the importance of participatory processes and farmers' proactive participation in extension programmes to ensure they meet their needs.
The case studies highlighted the diversity of issues that can be tackled through extension and advisory services, and the positive impacts these can have on farmers' livelihoods. In many cases, extension services are an addition to existing structures, such as farmer co-operatives, and are offered as part of a package of services. This helps to ensure that the positive outcomes from extension, such as increased yields, can be translated into positive outcomes for farmers, for example by supporting the marketing of the improved crops.
GFRAS evolved out of a series of discussions at international meetings over several years where the need for a formal structure to pro-actively promote RAS development was recognised. GFRAS comprises of various stakeholders worldwide who have an interest and role in rural advisory services. The Forum provides advocacy and leadership by RAS stakeholders on pluralistic, demand-driven advisory services. Its vision is to promote sustainable growth and reduce poverty by revitalising knowledge systems in agriculture, with a particular emphasis on extension and advisory services.
The success of the GFRAS model has in turn given rise to the strengthening of similar structures at regional levels to provide direct support to country-level advisory service actors. The African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS) has been created to meet this need and is partnering with GFRAS in Africa.
Following the 2011 meeting held in Kenya participants from the Middle East and North Africa decided to start their own regional network which will be launched in mid September 2012.
Davis said the annual GFRAS meeting which takes places in a different region each year, unites RAS people from around the world and fosters south-south exchange. It also provides a platform to discuss new approaches and current RAS developments as well as to report on activities and experiences of the past year.
"While this is mainly a networking event, we want to further understanding of the role of RAS in the AIS, she said."In the 'classic' sense extension is understood as bringing technology (out of the research department) to the farmer (top-down). In the past the needs and demands of the farmer were not considered too much, hence the new technology was not adopted.
GFRAS, Davis says, represents a more for a bottom-up approach to rural advisory services where the extension officer together with the farmer assess problems and needs and find a sustainable solution.
Studies done by GFRAS and other stakeholders have shown that extension services are a key investment for sustainable agriculture in the world. For example, extension services enable farmers to take up innovations, improve production, and protect the environment. Extension shows positive effects on knowledge, adoption, and productivity. With studies showing very high (13–500 percent) rates of return to extension, RAS are a cost-effective way to improve farmer productivity and income.
According to GFRAS, experiences with extension programmes show the positive impact that they have on productivity and farmer incomes. For instance, a programme with cacao farmers in Peru saw productivity rise from 340 to 600 kg per ha in three years as a result of ...
Furthermore, research has shown that investment in extension yields 80 percent annual rates of return while up to 60 percent is the norm, while educating farmers can help to double crop yields.
Assessing the farmer's access to extension services is difficult as RAS does not operate in isolation. However, research shows that in China and Vietnam, for example, on average there is one extension worker per 280 farm households, while in Indonesia, it is estimated that each extension worker covers about 2.8 villages.
Furthermore, available data also indicates that extension coverage is not always uniform, and that extension positions are not always filled, limiting the support farmers are able to receive. For example, in India, of the 143,863 positions in the Department of Agriculture, only 91,288 posts are filled. Combined with the large number of farm households in the country, this small number of positions means that on average extension services only reach 6.8% of farmers.
When farmers do not have access to formal extension services, they use other sources of information, sometimes using technologies such as mobile phones and Internet kiosks, or asking other farmers and their input dealers for advice. In India, as public extension is unable to reach many farmers, it is estimated that 17% of farmers get their information from other farmers and 13% from input dealers.
Additionally, there are often differences within countries. Governments with limited resources often need to choose which sector or which target groups will be prioritised. For example, in Vietnam, the national system has an annual budget of only US$20 million and targets mainly higher income farmers.
Writing in the World Bank Agriculture Innovation Sourcebook, Davis and Heemskerk, show that nearly all governments invest in extension services, often with the help of donor funds and loans.
In the 1980s, before governments were forced by international development banks to reduce spending on large programmes, they invested in advisory services but this greatly reduced in the 90s and 2000s especially in Latin America where it almost dropped off completely. In Africa operational spending was cut, leaving the existing staff with little resources to do their work and leading to ineffective services.
Following recent food price crises and other international events, governments are starting to invest again in advisory services, notably in Latin America and in countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Liberia.
In 1988 global public investments in extension were estimated at US$6 billion, an investment that has declined in subsequent decades as a result of a combination of factors such as recent food crisis, and concerns about global ability to meet growing demand for agricultural products in a sustainable manner.
Furthermore, World Bank lending to the agricultural sector more than doubled between 2006 and 2009, from US$2.9 billion to US$5.3 billion but the research and extension sectors did not benefit as much as other sectors. World Bank support for agricultural research and extension was around US$120 million per year during 2007 and 2008, rising to US$582 million in 2009, and around US$300 million in 2010.
At the national level, governments are also reprioritising extension, according to Davis and Heemskerk. For example, the Government of Ethiopia has recently established farmer training centres in every local administrative area and three extension agents at every training centre. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of extension agents increased from 15,000 to 45,000, with the aim of reaching about 66,000. Reaching that goal would probably give Ethiopia the world's highest ratio of extension agents to farmers.
Despite some achievements in the recognition of RAS as an important component in development of global agriculture, challenges remain in RAS being rolled out in an efficient and effective manner. GFRAS has identified five key areas of focus to improve RAS. Firstly, taking 'best fit' approaches that smartly match local realities with the best programmes, governance, and methods for extension; secondly, focusing on pluralistic services where the public, private, and civil society play different and complementary roles in providing services; thirdly, ensuring accountability to clients by using participatory approaches; fourthly, developing capacity of individuals, organisations, and systems, and lastly ensuring long-term institutional support rather than a project approach.