Strengths and weaknesses
Like all other extension approaches, FFS also has certain advantages and problems when it comes to what it can and cannot do8.
Format: The informal and participatory nature of FFS programmes with built-in group dynamics and team building exercises makes it a good entry point for discussion on broader livelihood issues. FFS might not be efficient if used only for increasing yields through “message delivery” or for demonstrating a technology.
Strengths: FFS activities rely more on farmers’ own discovery and reflection - so there is no risk of farmers not trusting extension workers due to ineffectiveness of incorrect/ blanket recommendations. Moreover, the learning capacities built in FFS can be applied in other problem-solving situations in different contexts. FFS provides opportunities for farmer-to-farmer extension and can reduce farmers’ dependence on formal extension systems.
Participation: FFS can help strengthen social capital at the local level. FFS processes help to build self-confidence - especially for women farmers - and the schools can be a good platform for vulnerable farmers to come together for collective action. Nevertheless, the intensive and demanding nature of FFS activities can make participation of vulnerable households including women-headed households difficult.
Sustainability: Some programs pay farmers for attending but that is likely to affect the longer term sustainability of FFS as an extension approach.
Impact: While FFS shows positive impact on knowledge and productivity locally, it has been difficult to link it to diffusion of improved farmer practices at a wider scale. There is evidence to show that FFS graduates and FFS groups may or may not stay together in the longer term.
Cost effectiveness: One of the major challenges of justifying FFS as a form of public investment in farmer education has been determining the cost effectiveness of FFS. FFS are criticised for being labour-intensive with relatively high programme and travel costs and limited outreach, i.e. only a small number of interested farmers. A key outcome of FFS is farmers’ empowerment, which is difficult to quantify and measure. Although they mostly depend on external funding, some East African countries have successfully tried out self-financed FFS programmes.
Governance and management
At the local level, existing organisations and self-help groups can be a good entry point for FFS activities, provided the members are willing to invest time. In most contexts, FFS graduates have showed willingness to organise themselves into networks or associations while some have integrated into existing organisations. For instance, in Uganda’s national extension programme (NAADS), FFS are well integrated into the District Farmer Fora. This has provided an excellent institutional framework for taking up agriculture development.