ICTs in agricultural extension: potential and pitfalls.

By T.L Magwiroto

That the post land reform agricultural extension system in Zimbabwe has been struggling to discharge its mandate is beyond question. But before we judge and condemn, we need to step back a little bit and ask, what has gone wrong and why? What can be done? What are the options?

The primary purpose of an agricultural knowledge system (research, education and extension) is to provide useful information, knowledge, skills and encouragement to farmers to enable them to exploit opportunities (for their own benefit and the economy at large). But without a nourishing flow of pertinent knowledge, and the capacity to convey it effectively to farmers, the system degenerates to a mere ritual.

So what is our problem, you ask? Well, lets cast our eyes to history for a while. The agricultural extension system in Zimbabwe was established in the late 1920s in response to the changes in the land tenure and production systems brought about by British colonial rule. Three related factors contributed much to the need for extension: First, the native people were forced to settle and earn their livelihood in overcrowded Tribal Trust Lands in marginal, low potential areas. Second, the natives were not accustomed to “settled” agriculture. Third, the advent of the ox-drawn plough into this mix proved a disaster for soil and land resources in the black reserves. Hence extension was introduced as a policy intervention to teach the natives improved ways of (intensifying) agriculture production using proven, scientific principles.

Now, this becomes interesting because, by definition, extension is really a communicative intervention to change voluntary behaviour. So what conditions are required to change voluntary behaviour? First, people must “know” about options: a new innovation maybe; the dangers of not dipping their animals; the causes of livestock deaths etc. Secondly, people must care or “want” to change. This refers to motivation. Then lastly, people must have the “capacity”(resources) to do things. So then this brings us to an important juncture: as the British colonial government found out, extension can do certain things, but certainly not everything. Extension can raise awareness or knowledge about things, and help to motivate desire for them, but resources may have to come from elsewhere to complete the cycle.

Basically, I have been discussing the logic of the top-down view of extension in the preceding paragraphs. That is the classical extension thinking, popularised by Rogers and others in the 60s, 70s and 80s. But there has been a dissatisfaction with that model and a clamour for change. It is within this need for change that I see the potential for ICTs.

It has long been realised that extension has struggled to change voluntary behaviour of farmers. Many reasons have been advanced, but I want to zero in on one. That is, there is often a misalignment between the farmers objectives and extension goals. In the classical top-down extension, this has been the fatal flaw.

In post land reform Zimbabwe, many changes have happened which may require extension services to re-orient themselves if they are to remain relevant. First, the profile of farmers is changing. The extension system was geared to serving the communal peasant farmers who had limited access to resources. The new farmer is generally more educated, more linked to urban centres, more entrepreneurial in outlook and perhaps a professional in another field. The extension needs of these new farmers is certainly different from the needs of the traditional farmers for whom the extension system was originally set up.

The post 2010 political and economic environment in Zimbabwe has enabled more widespread access to ICT resources. New farmers now have access to Facebook, WhatsApp, the internet and other digital platforms where they can pursue specific farming interests with like-minded others. The potential of these ICT resources lies in their ability to align extension services to farmers’ objectives. If farmers require market prices, give them. Farmers want sources of vaccines, show them. Farmers want to import or export, enable them! So in short, my argument is that ICTs have given the extension system (finally) a way of aligning the extension service to customer demands. Participatory intervention is within the realm of possibility, and that is an opportunity for extension.

ICTs however, come with potential pitfalls. Thanks to ICTs and other global developments, there has been much plurality in the agricultural system. In fact, the modern thinking is to term it an “agricultural innovation system” to account for the expanded number of players and complexity within it. It really is a jungle out there, with many players with diverging interests active in the system. Who harmonises, referees, intermediates? The new role of public extension, maybe?

Now, onto McLuhan’s classic, “the medium is the message”, the chief characteristic of social media is “users as content producers”. This can certainly be a double-edged sword. Fake news? Opportunistic behaviour? And in agriculture-oriented platforms, the absence of technical “experts” do tend to weaken the potential benefits of membership. What goes in there, and whose questions get answered, whose views prevail? Who validates the veracity of information shared? It goes without saying that con-men and con-women and fake-news peddlers aplenty lurk within the shadows of cyberspace. “Facilitation-without-strangling” within the digital groups is required, walking the impossible tight rope between laissez faire and autocracy! Who can do that?

Every innovation tends to have winners and losers. The tempting thing would be to analyse what goes in the digital platforms, but what about for those, who, for some reason cannot access these platforms? What alternatives do they have? How can formal extension assist everyone, especially in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals with its ambition of not “leaving anyone behind”? How could digital resources and digital literacy be expanded to reach everyone?

These are serious questions that could shape the future of extension systems in Zimbabwe and beyond.

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