From margin to mainstream: revitalization of agricultural extension curricula in universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa

M.M. Zinnah, R.E. Steele and D.M. Mattocks

M.M. Zinnah is an Agricultural Extension Specialist at the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development, Ghana.

c/o Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension,
School of Agriculture,
University of Cape Coast,
Cape Coast, Ghana
tel: +233 42 33583
fax: +233 42 33921

R.E. Steele is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Extension Education in the Department of Education at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, United States.

Department of Education,
Cornell University,
Ithaca, New York, United States
tel: +1 607 255 2198
fax: +1 607 255 7905

D.M. Mattocks is the Director of the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education (SAFE), Morrilton, Arkansas, United States.

Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development,
38 Winrock Drive,
Petit Jean Mountain,
Morrilton, Arkansas 72110-5435, United States
tel: +1 501 727 5435
fax: +1 501 727 5417


One of the major problems impeding the effectiveness of agricultural extension services in Africa is the low level of training of a large proportion of extension staff. Most extension staff lack the knowledge and skills required to work in the complex and rapidly changing agricultural environment. Consistently unresponsive, universities and colleges rarely offer extension training programmes that address the changing demands of the work environment. Compounding these problems, the academic discipline of agricultural extension is marginalized in agricultural universities and colleges, especially in Africa, with only a negligible number of credit hours allocated to agricultural extension and related courses. The training departments of ministries of agriculture and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) generally run ad hoc in-service training programmes that do not prepare extension staff adequately to deal with complex agricultural problems.

This article discusses an innovative extension training initiative being implemented in selected universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa. The authors argue that African agricultural universities and colleges must strengthen their capacities to develop and deliver responsive extension training programmes in order to train extension staff to become critical thinkers and reflective practitioners. A framework is proposed to guide universities and colleges interested in developing and launching responsive agricultural extension training programmes.


There is a shortage of well-trained agricultural extension staff in many developing countries (FAO, 1996) which raises the question as to which strategy should be used for human resource development in agricultural extension in sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural extensionists constitute the least-trained group of staff in African agricultural organizations. Their initial formal training is usually inadequate and where in-service training is provided it is often ad hoc and not responsive to the changing nature of extension tasks. According to FAO (1990), a large number of African extension staff (56 percent) possess secondary school-level academic qualifications. The same study estimates that the number of economically active people in agricultural areas in developing countries who receive extension services each year is one in five, an extension-staff-to-farmer ratio of more than 1:2 000. Given the low numbers of extension staff, accompanied by low levels of training, it is not surprising that extension organizations are functioning poorly in Africa.

Current agricultural trends, such as those related to population, gender and environmental issues, are placing diverse, and often very complex, demands on extension staff. Agricultural extension staff are central to facilitating the changes associated with these trends. It is imperative that formal training (or retraining) programmes provide opportunities for extension workers to conduct independent or group educational projects in environments similar to those they face in their extension activities. This hands-on approach to extension training builds upon the concept that experiences are the building blocks of learning (Kolb, 1984).

Revitalizing agricultural extension training

An initiative to revitalize agricultural extension curricula was launched in 1993 at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. A revised approach was started in early 1997 at Alemaya University of Agriculture in Ethiopia; this is referred to as the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education (SAFE). SAFE is a partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture, Sasakawa Africa Association (a non-governmental donor organization based in Japan), Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development (a non-governmental development agency based in the United States) and participating universities and colleges in each country. The main focus of SAFE is the training of mid-career extension staff who currently work with ministries of agriculture and NGOs engaged in agricultural and rural development. Under the new programme, experienced mid-career extension staff can earn a B.Sc. degree in agricultural extension. The SAFE initiative combines revitalization of the agricultural extension curriculum with reform of the universities and colleges themselves. The institutions are helped to increase their flexibility, develop client-driven training programmes, acquire relevant core instructional materials, forge partnerships and linkages and mobilize internal resources (both human and financial) to sustain their programmes. Candidates for the mid-career training programmes are nominated by their extension organizations, evaluated by the university and admitted if they meet the following criteria: 1) they have a minimum of three years of field experience in extension services; 2) they are at least 30 years old; and 3) they possess five "O-Level" passes, including mathematics and science. Qualified female candidates are encouraged to apply during each intake, with a view to addressing the gender imbalance and insensitivity that exist in agricultural extension organizations.

Steps in the curriculum revitalization process

The curriculum revitalization process involves six essential steps which are shown in the Box opposite. These steps provide a flexible conceptual framework for the discussion of curricula, evaluation and reforms. The framework is not a blueprint, but is intended as a guide to help universities and colleges in Africa that are in the process of planning curriculum reform in agricultural extension.

Essential steps in the agricultural extension
curriculum revitalization process

Step 1. Informal discussion among stakeholders to help them to understand the challenges of training mid-career agricultural extension staff.
Step 2. Clarification of the vision for a responsive agricultural extension training programme.
Step 3. Agricultural extension training needs assessment- factual or quantitative data as well as subjective aspects of the need for training mid-career extension staff.
Step 4. Workshop for stakeholders to discuss the findings of the agricultural extension training needs assessment and related issues.
Step 5. Development of the curriculum itself; consensus about the structure and the content's balance between theory and practice.
Step 6. Establishing a strong network among institutions and agencies committed to the revitalization of agricultural extension curricula.


Step 1: informal dialogue among key stakeholders

This first step usually involves informal dialogue among key actors in selected agricultural universities, colleges and development organizations (represented by the University of Cape Coast, the Sasakawa Africa Association and Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development in the case of Ghana). The aim of this step is to assist key university staff and administrators to reflect on their existing agricultural extension programmes, assess their effectiveness at meeting the training needs of mid-career extension workers and determine whether change is necessary. Working together, the dynamics of the change process and how to institutionalize change in a systemic way in order to make it sustainable are explored. As Curry (1992) suggests, the first step in improving a process, or a curriculum, is to decide that change is necessary and then to understand the change process in order to make it last.

Step 2: clarifying a vision

A precondition for innovative thinking about curricula is stakeholders' agreement, and action, on a common vision. An important aspect of the SAFE initiative is that the curriculum revitalization process is demand-driven. This step involves clarifying a vision for a more responsive extension training programme and confirming the stakeholders' belief that it is needed. To develop and deliver demand-driven extension training programmes, stakeholders (particularly the ministries of agriculture and NGOs engaged in agricultural and rural development) must approach a host university and express a need for a programme to train their extension staff. Once a demand has been established, the stakeholders can state and clarify their vision for a mid- career agricultural extension staff training programme and identify the curriculum and strategies that are needed for its effective implementation.

This step usually revolves around asking the stakeholders their views on the following key questions: 1) what are the needs of the mid-career extension staff who will enrol in the training programme? 2) what conditions and environment will support learning? 3) what can be done to enhance learning potential, both during and after the training programme? and 4) how can the programme be funded and sustained? The answers to these questions also help to increase awareness of the actions that will be necessary to bring about the desired change.

Step 3: agricultural extension training needs assessment

In order to provide information to guide the development of a curriculum, an extension training needs assessment is carried out by the host university in collaboration with staff from the Ministry of Agriculture, Winrock International and the Sasakawa Africa Association. Both quantitative and qualitative data are collected. This process usually involves a combination of a formal needs assessment and informal discussions with stakeholders, including extension staff who will potentially be (re)trained. Among other things, the needs assessment usually considers the following factors:

Step 4: workshop for stakeholders

A workshop involving key representatives of the stakeholders is held to discuss the findings of the needs assessment and to work out strategies for initiating and sustaining the programme. The workshop provides an opportunity for the stakeholders to engage in dialogue; work towards consensus on the vision for the programme, courses and their contents; develop criteria for the selection and admission of students; and establish programme linkages. The workshop also affords an opportunity to raise questions and voice concerns.

The following questions are often raised and discussed during the workshop: 1) is the university campus the most appropriate and effective place for students to learn in? 2) do students need to be under the constant supervision of university lecturers to maximize learning? 3) what is the role of agricultural extension staff? 4) are individuals with advanced degrees (M.Sc. or Ph.D.) the most effective teachers? 5) are field resource people with lower academic qualifications (diplomas or B.Sc.) less qualified to teach than those individuals with postgraduate degrees? and 6) is academic rigour compromised by allowing resource people with lower academic credentials to participate as members of a teaching team?

Facilitating a dialogue about these concerns draws on the knowledge, competencies and experiences of all stakeholders during the programme's conceptualization, development and implementation. It also facilitates the development of partnerships between organizations working in the agriculture sector. These partnerships are vital for resource mobilization (both human and financial) and the sustainability of such a demand-driven programme.

Step 5: development of the curriculum

The development of the curriculum is guided by four important criteria: 1) it must deal with the pragmatic needs of mid-career agricultural extension staff, including the acquisition of knowledge and skills in communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and how to learn with others; 2) it must be closely related to the participants' actual work environment; 3) it must provide a dynamic interplay between theoretical and practical components; and 4) it must expose participants to issues of food security, the role of women in agriculture and the relationship between population and food production.

The process of developing or revitalizing a curriculum "often involves a contest, with the outcome negotiated among faculty and various constituent groups by academic planners and administrators" (Kranz Jr., 1995). Sometimes the stakeholders will be in general agreement and curriculum revitalization will be simple, as was the case with the process that led to the launching of the first programme at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, in 1993. In other cases, curriculum revitalization can be a long process, as was the case with the second programme launched at Alemaya University of Agriculture, Ethiopia, in 1997. The negotiation of power and interests among the stakeholders was very slow as a result of government decentralization and devolution of power. The stakeholders were in agreement about the urgent need to provide training for mid-career agricultural extension staff in Ethiopia, but discussion about revitalizing the extension curriculum and starting the training programme had to be conducted not only with central, but also with regional government officials.

One unique and very important element of curriculum revitalization is the off-campus experiential learning component of the programme, referred to as supervised enterprise/experience projects (SEPs). After a period of study on campus, students return to their work environment to conduct SEPs independently or in groups to narrow the gap between theory and practice. Other scholars have referred to this type of learning as "experiential learning" (Macadam and Bawden, 1985; Kolb, 1984), "double-loop learning" (Argyris and Schon, 1978), "knowledge-in-action" (Applebee, 1996) and "learning as a way of being" (Vaill, 1996). SEPs, which generally last for a period of about eight months, are also meant to: immerse students in valuable farmer-focused, experience-based learning activities; reduce the discrepancy between training and the tasks the extension staff perform in their real work environment; and avoid the traditional tendency of making the training too theoretical (Zinnah, 1995; Zinnah et al., 1996). The essence of SEPs is to develop the students' ability to identify problems and explore practical ways to correct them.

Field-based resource people are usually identified and asked to serve as co-supervisors of the students. They assist the university lecturers with monitoring and supervision of students' projects. Farmers and community groups who may be affected by a proposed project are involved in the process. To evaluate the success and sustainability of each SEP, the following aspects are considered: the level and nature of the involvement of beneficiaries in the project; feedback from field-based co-supervisors; information from a logbook maintained by the participants; and a dissertation which is defended.

There is a strong extension focus in this initiative. For example, in the B.Sc. agricultural extension curriculum in the School of Agriculture at the University of Cape Coast, approximately one-half of the total credit points required to graduate are acquired from extension and extension-related courses. By contrast, in the existing B.Sc. general agriculture curriculum, fewer than one-tenth of the total credit points required to graduate are allocated to extension or extension-related courses.

Step 6: establishing a strong network

This initiative places emphasis on forging strong networks among local and foreign institutions and agencies (both public and private) that are committed to the revitalization of agricultural extension curricula in African universities and colleges. Change often requires a paradigm shift as well as very strong leadership. In discussions about curriculum revitalization, the issue of maintaining academic rigour always surfaces. As a result, university administrators and staff are usually cautious about launching new programmes that are non-traditional or out of the mainstream.

Forging strong linkages is intended to help stakeholders to recognize an enduring and shared commitment and the need for each of them to benefit from the diverse talents, resources, experiences and perspectives within the partnership (Bagchee, 1994). Representatives from partner institutions and agencies are encouraged to participate in workshops and study tours, to share their experiences and apprehensions and to support the risk-taking that is inherent in innovative and non-traditional ventures such as the revitalization of curricula.

Comments on courses

It should be noted that this initiative does not attempt to provide a recipe for courses in curriculum reform because each curriculum revitalization effort must consider the unique context of the situation in which the programme will be implemented. In addition, it is important to remember that integrated courses will be an important feature of programmes of higher education in agriculture (Kunkel, Maw and Skaggs, 1996). However, in addition to the traditional courses such as adult education, extension methodology, programme planning and evaluation there are some elements that must be included in the curriculum. These include: critical thinking; oral and written communication skills; and understanding of food security, the relationship between population and food production, the vital role of women in agriculture, the growing role of the private sector (including NGOs) in agricultural extension services and the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Lessons being learned

Traditionally, academic programmes and curricula are conceived, developed and controlled by universities and colleges with very little or no input from the outside community. Most of the programmes in these institutions are not responsive to the needs of the external environment. This initiative is a modest attempt to develop responsive training programmes for the revitalization of the agricultural extension profession in sub-Saharan Africa, with particular emphasis on mid-career extension staff. Experience from the past four years indicates that dialogue and collaboration between stakeholder groups can lead to responsive, jointly agreed training programmes. It is also becoming clear that developing training programmes in this way ensures strong commitment and support, particularly from administrators and staff.

The experience gained from this initiative strongly supports Wilson and Cervero's (1996) assertions that: planning responsively means actively accepting the risks and rewards of the outcomes of the planning work that has been done; planners have to be able to understand the power and interests in a given planning situation; and it is irrational to follow the same steps in every situation because curriculum revitalization is a process rather than a recipe or set of principles and different circumstances call for different responses.

Conclusions and implications

The SAFE initiative recognizes that reshaping or revitalizing agricultural extension curricula should not aim merely for the mastery of the cognitive content (facts and methods) that is imparted to learners, but should aim for experiential learning. The emphasis should be on helping learners to be reflective practitioners and to view learning as a process not limited only to outside experts.

There is an urgent need for agricultural and extension education in African countries (Steele et al., 1993). This initiative clearly demonstrates that there is considerable scope in sub-Saharan African countries to improve the training of agricultural extension staff, especially mid-career staff. Efforts are under way to spread the idea across sub-Saharan Africa. The main aim of this initiative is to share experiences among institutions and agencies committed to the vision of training mid-career agricultural extension staff. The momentum is already building up, as major universities in Africa, including Alemaya University of Agriculture in Ethiopia, Sokoine University of Agriculture in the United Republic of Tanzania, Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, have embraced this new approach to training mid-career extension staff.

Reflecting on their experience with this initiative, the authors consider that this process could be applied to other fields of study. The initiative emphasizes a holistic approach to the process of developing responsive curricula. The process perceives course participants, the university, the users of the graduates (ministries of agriculture, NGOs, farmers, etc.) and other interest groups as a community of learners who have a stake in the nature and content of the curricula.

The process of revitalization of agricultural extension curricula in universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa will need continued frank and thoughtful debate, discussion and refinement. The authors share Short and Burke's (1991:27) view that "there are no final solutions, only current best solutions". This innovative initiative will continue to evolve over the coming years.


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