There is already ample evidence that the epidemic has changed the very fabric of the farming population, bearing implications for agricultural extension services. Apart from the routine difficulties faced in daily work in rural areas by agricultural extension staff in developing countries, the challenges that most agricultural extension services face are mostly of a technical and logistic nature. Some examples are insect pest invasions, outbreaks of serious diseases, locust attacks, severe climatic effects, natural disasters, or intensive campaigns for an increase in agricultural production. The challenge currently posed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic to agricultural extension organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, however, is quite unusual as it affects both staff and clientele and involves human emotions to a depressing degree, that is, in addition to technical aspects. This challenge has at least three major dimensions. First, the very nature of the extension work; second, the impact of the epidemic on the extension organization itself and its staff; and third, the impact of HIV/AIDS on the clientele of extension services. A brief analysis of these three dimensions is in order.
Since most of the population of the countries, hardest hit by AIDS, lives in rural areas, a large number of people affected by HIV/AIDS in sub Saharan Africa are, directly or indirectly, engaged in farming. The workers, who have the most frequent contact with the small-scale farmers, are the field extension agents. The extension services, by their very mandate and character, are supposed to deal with traditional, mostly illiterate rural households, in order to provide them with technical advice not only on agricultural technologies but also on relevant subjects like farm input supply, credit, marketing and farm management. Most of the extension staff themselves have their genetic roots in rural families. They travel frequently in rural areas, many times spending nights away from home, and being offered hospitality in villages due to their status. Also, they are in touch with so many widows forced into farming because of their husbands death, who need extension advice. Thus, the extension workers have ample opportunities of getting involved with multiple sex partners. All these factors expose the extension staff to the maximum risk of HIV infection, especially with their very limited knowledge of the epidemic.
Effects on extension workers as individuals
Extension staff apart from being more exposed to the risk of contracting the HIV infection due to their frequent visits to HIV/AIDS infected rural areas, are themselves suffering from the pandemic in many ways. Many of them are sick, some chronically. A number of their colleagues have already become victim to the disease, and more bad news is feared almost every day. The talk of colleagues demise is common in office meetings more than ever before. Then, they have the unbearable burden, in terms of time, money and energy, of taking care of their close sick relatives and visiting sick neighbours. Some of them have lost their spouses, thus leaving them not only grieved but also with the responsibility of taking care of minor children. The situation has forced some workers to pull their children out of school. Unlike in the past, the attendance of funerals is now a frequent thing, and it involves heavy costs due to ceremonies such as slaughtering of precious animals and serving meals to large number of persons. Low morale, depression, economic worries, and less productivity are now common in extension organizations due to HIV/AIDS. Extension workers who by training are required to motivate farmers to try and adopt new agricultural technology are themselves depressed and frustrated, and this affects their output.
Reductions and disruptions in staff
Discussions with government extension service officials reveal that their capacity for delivering satisfactory services is being affected by HIV/AIDS. This is due to disruptions in their programmes caused by deaths, protracted sickness and frequent absences of staff. For example, in Uganda, between 20 and 50 percent of all working time of extension staff is lost due to the attendance of funerals of AIDS victims and for the caring of sick relatives. A considerable number of skilled and experienced persons have died of AIDS. In the Central Province of Zambia, during the period 1991 to 1998, as many as 66 staff died due to HIV/AIDS-related causes, representing almost 20 percent of the loss of staff due to different illnesses. The same is true for many other provinces. In Malawi, where there has been a freeze on staff recruitment since 1995, a considerable number of vacancies have resulted from the death of front-line staff, worsening the already unsatisfactory extension agent to farmer ratio. For example, in one district, a Field Assistant is required to cover an area of about 400 square kilometers where 4 000 farm families live. The organizations, including public and non-public, are faced with time-demanding tasks of identifying, recruiting and training of new staff. The result of delays in replacing the deceased and very sick staff is that the reduced number of staff are not only psychologically depressed due to the loss of colleagues but they also have to handle a far heavier workload both within the office and outside in the field. This situation is bound to adversely affect the performance of agricultural extension organizations.
Elderly people are back into farming as HIV/AIDS has killed young relatives
Increased organizational costs
Both public and private extension organizations and some relevant institutions have reported increased costs due to HIV/AIDS. The additional expenditure is related to payments for treatment of sick staff and their relatives, funerals of dead staff, compensation, salary advances, early retirements, recruitment and training of new staff, and for buying insurance coverage. According to the estimates provided by different private organizations engaged in extension work in Malawi, the cost of a funeral per death, depending on the status of the deceased staff members, could range between MK 1 000 and MK 50 000 (One US$ = approximately 70 MK). The increased costs are bound to affect the performance of public extension departments as most of them already suffer from very low operational budgets. The frequency of visits to the field will dwindle further and the few in-service training opportunities the staff have will also disappear.
Established technical practices going obsolete
The years old administrative, strategic, policy and operational practices of almost all relevant organizations, including public, private and NGOs, seem to be outdated due to drastic changes in the social structure including, income levels, patterns of life, and types of clientele, all caused by HIV/AIDS. Extension services, whether government, semi government, private, or NGOs, are linked to many other institutions and organizations such as those responsible for providing credit, technology packages, marketing facilities, land tenure, and plant protection. These organizations will also be affected in their operations and practices due to the effect of HIV/AIDS on the farming population. For example, there are now applications for agricultural credit from orphan- and widow-headed households, which are often not eligible according to the existing criteria for the approval of credit applications. The extension staff who, in general, are supposed to support the applications for rural credit, feel lost in the absence of the new criteria needed for this new clientele. The staff of rural credit institutions may be faced with a dilemma of their own since the applications for credit cannot be approved unless a revised policy is in place and a new set of criteria is available for the applicants to qualify. Similarly, the organizations and firms responsible for recommending farming systems and manufacturing farm equipment would soon find themselves wondering whether their recommendations and products are still as useful and in demand as they were before the epidemic hit.
Drastic change in the composition of clientele
The epidemic is changing the traditional composition of the clientele for extension services. In the areas of high HIV prevalence, the category of healthy and able-bodied men, women and youth, in the late adolescence to middle age range, is the one that has been most affected by high levels of morbidity and mortality. One finds more women, children and elderly persons now engaged in farming due to prolonged illness and/or death of their spouses, parents, guardians and other members of the family. Paradoxically, the struggle for feeding a large number of children left behind by their parents who have died young, has forced many very old persons back into farming who had retired from active farming long ago. The emerging target population for extension services increasingly includes more physically weak, sick, and elderly persons, widows and young orphans. For example, according to UNAIDS estimates, in 2001, the number of AIDS orphans in Mozambique was 420 000, and by 2010, was expected to jump to one million. Zimbabwe currently has 700 000 AIDS orphans. These newcomers, who even though they are exposed to farming due to living in rural areas, have relatively less experience in agronomic practices, as compared to their elders, and have limited physical and technical capacities for the use of heavy tools, farm machinery and animal-drawn farm equipment.
Elderly men are indirect victims of the epidemic
Change of this magnitude in the type and character of the clientele is bound to render the existing extension strategies and methods outdated unless they are adjusted in line with the new extension clientele and their needs. The public extension organizations, however, are not yet prepared to cope with the situation.
Distraction from farming activities
While travelling by road in the rural areas of the sub-Saharan African countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, the scenes of funerals are quite common. Both men and women, who should normally be busy in farming activities, are now forced by traditional customs, to frequently spend considerable time on attending the funerals and relevant ceremonies. These funerals are not only attended in their own villages but also in the surrounding villages for which they have to cover large walking distances. The situation does not only cause serious distraction from their normal farming operations, but also results in reduced contacts with the extension agents, and less participation in technology demonstration and training activities. The farms are being ignored and so are the contacts with extension staff.
Farmers increasing queries on HIV/AIDS
The notoriously persistent denial and conspiracy of silence about HIV/AIDS, common among rural communities, is gradually giving way to relative openness. The stigmatism, denial and secrecy are still prevalent, but so many and so frequent deaths occurring in the area among relatives and friends can no longer be simply ignored. The escape from HIV/AIDS has understandably become as important a priority for farmers as the once eagerly sought technical advice on increasing agricultural production. The farmersquestions are no longer limited to farming. There are so many queries related to HIV/AIDS. However, the extension staff who know little about the epidemic and have not received any special training in this subject, feel helpless and embarrassed in front of the farmers. They are not in a position to offer any useful information or meaningful advice.
Worsening supply of farm labour, food insecurity, and poverty
According to UNAIDS, HIV/AIDS infections are highest amongst adults aged between 20 and 40, who account for about three-quarters of all AIDS cases. The emerging households, where the men and women of most productive age have either died or are disabled by prolonged sickness, are now headed by orphans, adolescents, the elderly, and quite often weakened and sick adults, and have fallen deeper into poverty and food insecurity. This is because fewer family members can now spare the energy and time for earning wages in rural and non-rural employment. According to a study done in Ethiopia, AIDS-afflicted households spent 50 to 60 percent less time on agriculture than those not afflicted.
In the United Republic of Tanzania, researchers have found that women spent 60 percent less time on agricultural activities because their husbands were ill. In addition, infection rates are rising among African women, who account for 8 out of 10 of Africas small farmers, and who traditionally provide the vital coping skills needed in times of food crisis. The latest statistics shows that women now make up 58 percent of Africans already infected. At present, 14.4 million people risk starvation in six Southern African countries where about 15 million are HIV positive and 1.1 million were lost to the disease in 2001. AIDS has been identified as one of the causes of this famine and the single most important cause of vulnerability in the region.
By one estimate, approximately two person-years of labour are lost by the time one person dies of AIDS, due to his/her weakening and the time others spend giving care. According to FAO, AIDS has killed about 7 million agricultural workers since 1985 in the 25 hardest-hit countries in Africa, and it could kill 16 million more before 2020. The loss in the agricultural labour force through AIDS in the nine hardest-hit African countries, for the period 1985-2020, may be projected as follows: Namibia 26 percent; Botswana 23 percent; Zimbabwe 23 percent; Mozambique 20 percent; South Africa 20 percent; Kenya 17 percent; Malawi 14 percent; Uganda 14 percent; United Republic of Tanzania13 percent (FAO, 2001).
HIV/AIDS has created a large number of orphan children
This trend could have at least four serious implications. First, deepening and expanding poverty due to loss of income; second, an increasing shortage of farm labour required for production tasks such as land preparation, ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting, and post-harvesting activities; third, drastic food shortages; and fourth, increased vulnerability to the epidemic due to increased poverty and food insecurity. This is a vicious circle beginning with the start of the HIV infection of some persons and ending with the infection of many more persons.