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Scope and potential of ICTs in agricultural extension

The Zimbabwean extension reality
The extension worker to farmer ratio in Zimbabwe, stands at 1: ≥1000 for Natural Region IV (Rukuni et al., 2006) while in Africa, reports suggest that one extension officer is available to attend to almost 4,000 farmers or more in need of technical advisory and information services. On the other hand, 200 farmers in developed countries have access to one extension officer. Stakeholders in agriculture and ICT met recently in November in Harare, and agreed that Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) could fill agriculture extension gaps.

The disproportionate ratio of extension workers to farmers historically and today is the main obstacle hindering effective transfer and exchange of knowledge to inform smallholder farmer's decisions across different commodity supply chains. The agriculture sector has few extension workers, and the numbers continue to dwindle due to cost cutting measures, limited interest by students in extension work, poor remuneration, lack of desire to work in farms that are isolated, with poor infrastructure and services.. As ICTs continue to expand, there is growing interest in how the agricultural sector can effectively be adopted for improving extension services. A key issue emerging out the workshop whose specific focus was the Zimbabwean ICT in agriculture experience to date was the need to explore ways of harnessing ICTs for improved delivery of extension services particularly to rural farming communities.

The crisis and demands for extension growth
At least 4,800 extension workers are available for the 1.6 million farmers in Zimbabwe (Agritex, 2013). This imbalance has continued to widen amid efforts to invest in personnel development through tertiary agricultural institutions spread across the country. Years of under-investment in agricultural extension are evident in the number of quality constraints prevailing in extension services in Zimbabwe. First, the rapid dispatch of minimally trained agricultural extension officers to work with the numerous small-scale farmers spread throughout the country. Since 2000, there has been increase in demand of extension services spurred by the Fast Track Land Reform Programme, of which many of the beneficiaries had no experience or knowledge of agriculture. In response, government designed a stopgap measure of shortened training durations for extension officers. This compromised the quality of the training delivery, as experienced trainers had also left the sector.

During the workshop, the department of Agricultural Extension and Technical Services (Agritex) reported that in the past they operated an extensive radio system covering major stations to relay information to and from all levels on crop and livestock assessments and general information (Mr Chaonwa, Agritex). However, this has since succumbed to new technologies and overtaken by the emergence of faster and efficient means of sharing extension knowledge. This implies that in much of the decade of the growth of ICTs, Agritex has been lagging behind. The economic challenges, conspired against government departments to invest in ICTs, which now needs to be considered.

Agricultural research innovation and possibilities for adoption through ICTs
There is also a de-link between current research at global/regional level and practice on the ground. This poses a challenge as seen in the slow uptake or non-adoption of new innovations and agricultural knowledge that could potentially increase productivity. Brilliant ideas are lying in offices, yet some of the innovations could be helpful to smallholder farmers. While in Zimbabwe there is limited research and inadequate continuous revisions and update to extension curriculums, elsewhere this could be happening. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, it would be perhaps strategic to use ICTs to get those innovations to Zimbabwe and to the farmers in a fast and cost-effective manner. Currently farmers and extension officers are learning from outdated knowledge sources and practices. It is against this context, that the meeting recommended the possibilities of adapting ICTs in extension dissemination challenge within Agritex.

Adopting ICTs for agriculture extension is not a recent phenomenon. The advent of the digital age has seen a gradual shift from a combination of traditional media forms of knowledge exchange, such as television, radio and print as new forms of ICT based innovations proliferate the knowledge market. Examples of such include multimedia compact discs, web portals, video conferencing, podcasts, call centres, mobile telephony, e-learning platforms among others that continue emerging. The Farmer Voice Radio in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia documents on-site extension support by radio extension agents. As of 2010, a number of ICT based agricultural services have been operational in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Examples include Reuters market light and Google SMS Farmer friend; India's 'Digital Green' which disseminates targeted agricultural information to smallholder farmers; Uganda's Grameens Community Knowledge Workers (GCKWs) which works with rural farmers in Uganda to circulate free agricultural advisory services (crop information, market prices and inputs).

What has been the response?
Currently, Agritex in Zimbabwe is using mobile telephony to adopt ICTs. Working in collaboration with Mercy Corps, Agritex is developing an SMS platform to deliver pre-planting, growing and harvesting as well as post-harvesting and marketing information on selected crops to farmers. Through this platform, Agribusiness dealers will enter into partnerships and be linked to extension staff in the database. Along similar lines, Agritex is also an implementing partner, working with Econet Services through EcoFarmer, a service that provides crop insurance, agricultural information, financial services and market linkages to smallholder farmers. Development cooperation partners such as the Zim-Agricultural Income and Employment Development (Zim-AEID) programme also shared experiences on improving the work of extension officers by adopting ICTs.

There are also other complementary platforms such as EMkambo, ZFU bulk SMS and emails, as well as newsletters that have been quite effective in reaching some farmers. The extent to which these are used by extension workers still needs to be established. These e-platforms are set to increase efficiency, equitable information flow across all actors – producers, government, private sector while reducing monopoly profits and expansion of market share at the expense of the less informal.

Taking up cost-related matters of the ICTs
Zim-AEID has piloted tablet technology for extension work that includes recording data, geographical information and location. A number of potential advantages were lodged in support of adopting tablet technology for extension information generation and sharing. Cost-wise, the tablet is comparatively a lower priced device than a laptop and related devices. Where a laptop and devices will cost an average $1,200, a basic tablet with the required functions will cost around $400 which is marginally cheaper. This is because a tablet often come with essential applications that can be downloaded for free or at a very minimal price, for example GPS essentials, instant messaging (Whatsapp, Gtalk), word processing and spreadsheets, email access and cloud storage among others. Costs of printing, however would require third party software and access to a printer; though the sum total still works out as a cheaper alternative to laptops. Through tablet use, the expectation is that data communications, visual and audio documentation can be improved for extension officers sharing among themselves and with farmers. A success story emerging out of such an adoption is the Sustainable Agricultural Trust (SAT) programme who have conducted training sessions using tablets connected to projectors that are powered by generators, taken field pictures (using the tablet) which have been later on published, and maintaining communication and documentation through the email and word processing applications.

Further, the cost of data (broadband, internet access) is on the pricey side which also serves as a deterrent when considering the size of files to be transmitted and shared. Bulk SMS facilities often provide cheaper deals as the number of recipients increases. The current price for a bulk SMS is $0.02, and relatively cheap. The downside of SMS facilities though is the need to be concise and to the point given the character input limits. One way of working around this has been coding information particularly commodity prices at the markets where crops such as maize, soya, wheat adopt the codes MZ, SY and WH respectively before the information pertaining to the crop is shared. This may not be easily comprehended by farmers ad even other extension workers unless a conscious effort to build awareness and tech-literacy is made. Again, this has cost implications thus reverting back to the resource challenge in financing ICT adoption for extension. Introducing a business model in the delivery of extension advisory service as is being done by private sector actors (Agrilife, EcoFarmer) would seem the viable option although it is important to obtain buy-in from all stakeholders especially the farmers.

What are the prospects?
Does this mean Zimbabwe is well on track of ICT adoption in agricultural extension? A number of challenges still prevail. Mobile telephony based extension services require extensive and good network coverage. As it is, most of the country is well networked with 97% mobile penetration. However, this does not translate to full coverage in other areas that require advisory services given their marginal locations. It remains to be seen, to what extent extension officers are uptaking ICT based knowledge platforms for their own use and for sharing with their farmers. The cost element also continues to feature strongly. On the one hand, insurmountable information currently in print form would ideally need to be converted into electronic format that allows for digital storage and sharing. Availing the information in the vernacular is also critical to ensure wider reach among the farmers. These processes incur costs which unfortunately may not suffice in the interim. Presently, there is very minimal government spending on extension services which means prioritisation of key deliverables and activities in the department. This may mean overlooking the data conversion process and therefore limit the amount of knowledge available for sharing on ICT based platforms.

As inroads into ICT adoption in extension services continue expanding, it is imperative that reviews be made at policy level to facilitate investment and financial commitment from government through national budgetary allocations for the extension services' refurbishment along ICT lines. Further, continual training and awareness for extension officers and farmers accessing and using the ICTs is required to ensure optimal use and benefit from the wide range of possible services that can be derived from it. While it is widely accepted that adopting ICTs will change the face of extension for the better in Zimbabwe, it is important to bear in mind the extent to which ICTs can indeed be useful. The direct interface between farmers and extension workers through on-site demonstrations, consultations and tailor made responses to challenges in the crops and livestock chains still requires due recognition for the value it continues to unlock in farmers' productivity and income levels.

*Sheila Chikulo, Programme Officer (Advocacy and Policy Engagement Programme)

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