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Many see rural advisory services (RAS), also called ‘extension’, as indispensable in efforts to improve agricultural production in smallholder farms in developing countries. However, development specialists have lamented that, bogged by infrastructural and logistical challenges, traditional RAS, such as the old ‘training and visit’ systems, have mostly failed to reach rural smallholder farmers. (1,2)
(1) Gautam, M. and Anderson, J.R. 1999. Reconsidering the evidence on returns to T&V extension in Kenya. Washington, DC: World Bank. 

(2) Kahan, D.G. 2007. Farm management extension services: A review of global experience. Agricultural Management, Marketing and Finance Occasional Paper 21. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In these traditional systems, the extension agent–farmer ratio is typically very low.

Higher agent–farmer ratios are critical, especially given the renewed global focus on sustainable, climate smart agriculture. Effective RAS could enhance the resilience of smallholder farmers, who are most vulnerable to production shocks resulting from socioeconomic, climate, and environmental catastrophes. (3)

(3)  Davis, K., Babu, S.C. and Blom, S. 2014. The role of extension and advisory services in building resilience of smallholder farmers. International Food Policy Research Institute 2020 Conference Brief, 13. Washington DC: IFPRI.

New RAS approaches that complement traditional systems are thus being explored and pilot-tested in many countries. One of these, the community knowledge workers (CKW) approach, which started as part of the Grameen Foundation’s economic development outreach to rural communities in the developing world, has been tried in Uganda and elsewhere. It entails fielding CKWs who reside and work in clientele communities to expand the reach of extension workers. For example, under the Uganda traditional RAS system through the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) extension agents serve between 3,000–9,000 households across 15–40 villages within a 50–300 km radius. On the other hand, a CKW serves 500–900 households across 4–6 villages within a radius of 5–10 km. (4)

(4)  Grameen Foundation. 2013. A digital revolution in agricultural extension – the CKW initiative.
 Because the CKWs are community members themselves, they can help in providing feedback on community perspectives to decision-makers.

 The CKW approach

The CKW system, a type of farmer-to-farmer extension, involves local networks of farmer-to-farmer peers serving as information intermediaries. They use smartphones and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) to reach fellow farmers with agricultural (livestock management, agronomic practices for crops), weather (seasonal and daily forecasts), and market price information. Their smartphone connects to a remote server called Salesforce, which provides access to real time agriculture, market price, and weather information.

As community members, CKWs incur little transaction cost in delivering RAS within their communities. They are relatively efficient in reaching farmers in remote areas because of their familiarity with their zones of influence. They provide advisory services to individual farmers as well as farmers’ groups, thereby expanding the scope of knowledge sharing considerably.