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Chapter 3 - The context of extension in agricultural and rural development

Warren Peterson

Warren Peterson is a Senior Fellow with the International Service to National Agricultural Research, The Hague, The Netherlands.

A systems perspective
Institutional factors
Concluding observations

Agricultural extension, whether public or private, operates in a context or an environment that influences the organization, form, and content of transfer activities (Moris, 1991). The dominant characteristic of that context is change. Because the changes affect all aspects of extension, the context should be examined and understood so that extension can be better managed.

This chapter first places extension within a system of agricultural technology generation and transfer. Two major sections follow. One describes the macro-context factors: agroecological, infrastructural, policy, political-economic, and sociocultural. The other looks at the institutional context, namely, other institutional actors involved in activities related to agricultural extension such as research and transfer, education and training, input supply, and credit.

A systems perspective

The usefulness of a systems approach for understanding and analysing agricultural technology generation and dissemination is widely acknowledged (among others, Nagel, 1979; Swanson & Peterson, 1991; Roling, 1991; Elliott, 1994). Although they are sometimes criticized because they are so abstract, systems analyses offer holistic vantage points for understanding the factors that impede or enhance the two-way flow of technology and information between farmers and the public organizations that constitute the system.

The model used here identifies an agricultural knowledge system consisting of four components set in a larger context (Figure 1). The components are technology generation, technology transfer (knowledge and input transfer), technology utilization, and agricultural policy (Swanson, Sands, & Peterson, 1990). The organizations that constitute the components, as well as others in the system environment, influence each other in complex ways. Such publicly funded systems are established by governments to improve the conditions of life and well-being of rural and urban populations and to increase agricultural productivity.

The functions and linkages related to the flow and feedback of technology and information in the system define the components. In the public sector, agricultural research organizations (technology generation) and extension (technology transfer) are major actors, although commercial companies and NGOs (the private sector) are commercial companies and NGOs (the private sector) are also involved. The way these are divided among organizations differs from country to country.

Technology generation consists of planning, administration, and implementation of research activities that develop, assess, adapt, and test improved agricultural technology for farmers and other users. In the public sector, these tasks, as well as some dissemination work, are carried out by agricultural research organizations.

Technology transfer further evaluates and adapts research outputs for users and then widely disseminates the knowledge and inputs to different target adopters - farmers of different categories, private companies, and so on. Figure 1 shows two parts of the transfer component, namely, knowledge and inputs. In many countries, government extension does both types of transfer, although the emphasis is on knowledge. Private organizations are also involved in both types of transfer, although farmer coverage is more limited and input transfer may play a bigger role.

The technology utilization component encompasses the users of the agricultural technology, mainly farmers. User awareness, adaptation, and adoption of improved technology from various sources affect farm-level productivity and profitability and, ultimately, economic growth at the national level. Interaction and feedback between users and research and transfer organizations improve cooperation and the relevance of technology.

The policy component relates to government development goals and strategies, market and price policies, and the levels of resource investments in the system. Various government bodies play a role in setting development policy. Technology development and transfer organizations are affected by the policy in fundamental ways.

The division of generation and transfer tasks organizations and sectors differs from country to country, as does the nature of the policy and utilization components. However, the flow of technology can be mapped as it moves between or is influenced by organizations constituting the agricultural technology system. Flow analysis shows the impediments to generation and transfer and the influences of other institutional actors and highlights contextual issues.


The agricultural technology system context in which government extension organizations operate can be described under two headings: macro-factors and institutional factors. The discussion that follows introduces the more important ones in each category that need to be understood by extension planners and managers. Any of these factors can impede or influence the flow of technology and information between farmers and extension.



Because the natural environment strongly influences extension planning and operations, extension should respond to the technological needs of farmers in different agroecological zones. The variation represented by agroecological zones in a given country can be substantial. Differences in temperatures, rainfall, soil types, evapotranspiration, and so forth are reflected in the diversity of farming conditions and production systems found.

Extension planners face some difficult choices because of the need to respond to the diverse technology and information needs of farmers from many different zones and, at the same time, to satisfy a requirement for extensive countrywide coverage of the rural population. For example, extension resource investments can be determined by farmer population concentrations, potential productivity of selected agroecological zones, or a combination of both.


The political and economic environment affects extension in many ways. One of the most significant factors is a country's stage of economic development. Another is the level of government investment in public sector extension. This is influenced by the presence or absence of a structural adjustment programme, the degree of economic dependence on agriculture, and the proportion of the population economically active in agriculture as opposed to industry. The percentage of resource-poor smallholder farmers influences the type of technology to be transferred, particularly if government is concerned with the equitable coverage of all categories of farmers.

Politics has another, infrequently identified impact on public extension organizations. Political shifts at the national level often result in changes in extension personnel, management, and programmes. High turnover of top managers undermines management experience and continuity in leadership. In addition, political unrest and war often make extension efforts impossible (Gustafson, 1994).


In many countries, sociocultural factors are leading constraints to the effectiveness of extension. Language differences and illiteracy can impede the communication of improved technology unless they are taken into account. The division of labour between the sexes can differ along cultural lines and influences the nature of farming systems in different regions. In many countries, the men are employed off-farm, leaving the farm operations to women. In extension organizations, under representation of women on the extension force means that the production responsibilities and needs of women at the farm level may not be adequately addressed.

Cultural differences among farmers, as well as differences in their resource endowments, also need to be taken into account. In particular, these are reflected in land-use strategies. Pastoral herders, for example, will require different types of subject-matter expertise, and extension will need to use different strategies to transfer technology to them than to permanent field agriculturalists. The resource endowments of different categories of farmers also affect technology adoption levels. Subsistence farmers adopt mainly low-cost technologies. For this reason, extension work that focusses on cultural practices and affordable technologies may be more appropriate in countries with large numbers of resource-poor farmers.


The policy component of an agricultural technology system can enable or limit extension in ways beyond the reach of extension managers. The principal areas of influence are price signals to farmers and decisions by government that affect public agricultural development organizations.

Agricultural Development. Policy-making bodies of government set development goals and objectives such as achieving food security or surplus agricultural production to stimulate economic growth, or providing health care and education for rural development. It is the task of government extension organizations to help meet these goals by formulating subordinate objectives and strategies to achieve them.

The amounts invested by government and the development community in agricultural development influence the pace and scale of effort. In many instances, spending ceilings for public institutions have been imposed by a structural adjustment programme agreed to by government. Extension planning needs to take these limits into account, especially when dealing with the question of staffing, which has major budget implications.

The endowment levels for public agricultural extension are set by government policy and planning bodies and impose limits on expenditures. This can hamper extension efforts in basic ways. The operating as compared to salary budget amounts are often inadequate, with negative effects. For example, a lack of money to buy vehicles and fuel undermines the mobility of extensionists. In addition, if salaries are too low, extension cannot attract or hold qualified staff, and services will suffer. Careful planning, guided by a strategy and programme of action, can improve the use of resources and the effectiveness of extension work within government funding limits.

Market Intervention. Governments set policies on consumer and producer commodity prices, subsidies for inputs, credit availability, import substitution, export earnings, food self-sufficiency, and natural resource management. These send direct and indirect price signals to farmers and influence their production decisions. High fertilizer prices, for example, cause farmers to use less of this input. Extension organizations should be aware of market signals to ensure that they are recommending technologies that meet farmers' current needs. They also require feedback from farmers to ensure the continued relevance of their activities.

Commodity prices influenced by government policy act as incentives or disincentives for farmer production. If there is no profit incentive for production of a specific crop, there is little point in developing or transferring improved technology related to that crop. For example, policies that favour the import of cereal grains at concessionary prices on the international market discourage incountry production of those crops. Technology generation and transfer outputs that focus on such crops are not likely to interest farmers. The examination of the policy context is important and allows organizations to avoid wasted effort and resources.


Infrastructure, particularly the condition of transport, communication, and market facilities, affects both farmers and extension. The capacity to move people, inputs, and produce and to send and receive information influences extension activities and capacity. Market infrastructure itself can be lacking or inadequate.

Transportation. There may be many areas that cannot be reached by road, or transport vehicles may be in short supply. In either case, farmers under these conditions are difficult to reach with improved technology, and they will have problems transporting inputs and farm produce. For example, input supply outlets can be far apart, and excessive transport distances can make it difficult or impossible for traditional farmers to adopt improved technology.

Communications. Communication infrastructure can impose additional constraints for extension organizations. Farmer access to mass media such as publications, radios, or television may be limited, thus reducing the options available to extension for communicating its messages. At the same time, extension itself may have little or no access to telephone and radio services for long-range communications. This can severely hamper its ability to organize and carry out field operations.

Two aspects of a country's media organizations, both print and audio-visual, affect the flow of extension messages to farmers (Mathur & Sinha, 1991). One is the attitudes and subject interests of media managers responsible for programming for rural audiences. The other is the organizational climate, especially morale. It is crucial that extension consider the capacity of mass media organizations (newspapers, magazines, radio, and television) as part of its strategy and plans for communicating with farmers.

Institutional factors

Public agricultural extension organizations in most countries have the task of providing a two-way flow of improved technology and information between research and users, primarily farmers. They operate in an institutional environment that includes other public and private organizations active in agriculture. In particular, those other actors involved in generating and transferring agricultural technology must be examined and understood to improve extension's effectiveness and efficiency.


Agricultural research organizations are extension's closest institutional partners in technology generation and transfer. While these functions are also undertaken by private organizations, public sector organizations have the task of generating technology relevant for all categories of producers and agroecological zones. The way research is structured and organized, and the planning and management of research-extension linkages, can limit or enhance extension's effectiveness.

Agricultural research organizations in developing countries confront many problems (Idachaba, 1987; Oram & Bindlish, 1984). These include lack of financial resources, acute shortages of well-trained scientists, lack of farmer feedback to ensure relevance of research results, lack of access to external sources of knowledge, inadequate research facilities and equipment, low staff morale, and inadequate operating budgets, staff incentives, and remuneration. Few of these can be addressed by extension managers, but they can impede the generation of technology, resulting in fewer research outputs for extension to transfer. An understanding of research's problems is an important step in planning extension activities and coordinating them with research.

Poor linkages between research and extension are major constraints in technology flow in many countries (Kaimowitz, Snyder, & Engel, 1990; Eponou, 1993). The linkage problems are of two basic types: those affecting feedback from farmers to research and extension and those relating to coordination and cooperation between research and extension. In both cases, extension managers can improve the situation by developing a linkage strategy and allocating responsibilities and adequate resources for linkage tasks.

Education and Training

Educational organizations that train extensionists are important elements in the institutional context for extension. The work of universities and training institutes in particular has a significant impact on extension organizations. The content of their curricula as well as the numbers and qualifications of their graduates are limiting or enabling factors in any country. In many cases, communication between extension and education organizations is poor. As a result, extension commonly has staffing problems. It is not unusual for extension organizations to have posts that are either vacant or filled by underqualified personnel.

Inadequate numbers and qualifications of staff remain a difficult problem for public sector extension organizations. Salaries and benefits are rarely competitive with those of comparable private and public enterprises, resulting in low morale and high staff turnover. Education levels may be quite low, especially for farmer contact staff. The ability to attract and retain qualified extension staff is limited in most countries by civil service salary scales established by other agencies of government.

The situation can be improved by establishing staffing and training plans. The staffing plan inventories current human resources, identifies staffing gaps, and projects staffing needs over a specified time. The training plan identifies specific types of training (in-service and formal) required to fill skill gaps in human resources and to cover staffing needs for planned operations. The additional step of coordinating training needs with the educational organizations is needed.

Input Supply

Farmers need inputs to increase production, but access to these is often poor in less developed countries. While inadequate transport and marketing infrastructure are often at the root of the problem, there are certain aspects that can be addressed by extension.

Genetic Technology. Among the major outputs of the technology generation subsystem is improved genetic material. New plant and animal varieties with higher yields or resistance to pests or diseases become available. However, farmers need to know when the variety is released, how it performs under farm conditions, and where to obtain seed or breeding material. Extension is responsible for disseminating this information through appropriate mass media and contact methods. But a common constraint on the flow of technology is the availability of genetic material. In some countries, extension is also involved in the multiplication and distribution of seed. Establishing effective linkages with others involved in the process can also help ensure that genetic material is available for farmers.

Agrochemicals and Other Inputs. The performance of new varieties is often improved by, or even dependent on, the availability of agrochemical and other inputs at the farm level. Recommendations for fertilizer types and amounts suited to local soil conditions, for animal feed mixtures and practices, and for the control of plant and animal pests and diseases constitute an indispensable part of extension messages. Lack of access to this information and materials prevents yield maximization, so extension organizations need to ensure that farmers are informed on availability and use. If access is limited because of external factors, extension should plan its campaigns accordingly, with attention given to low-input recommendations.

Private companies and nonprofit organizations also provide advice to farmers on agrochemical and other input use. Extension organizations need to develop communication and coordination linkages with these actors because excessive use of agrochemicals can harm human health and the environment. Conservative recommendations and alternative approaches, such as integrated pest management, are in the interests of the public and can be promoted by extension through its farmer contacts and other linkages.


Access to credit is one way to improve farmer access to new production technology and increase productivity. Farmers' ability to purchase inputs such as improved seed and fertilizer is particularly important. If appropriate technology is available but not being used by farmers, then the way credit is handled by government may be part of the problem.

Understanding the credit context - government and bank policies, availability of credit, and the institutional relationships involved in its delivery - is important for extension. At a minimum, the existing credit situation should be examined so that factors affecting the adoption and use of technology can be identified. These include inequitable access to credit, insufficient amounts of it, and overlap of transfer activities due to credit institution involvement in extension work. The knowledge is useful for extension managers in targeting farmers and in coordinating extension objectives with credit institutions.

Farmer Organizations and Other NGOs

There is growing involvement of the private sector, both nonprofit and commercial organizations, in agricultural research and extension. While such organizations may have limited research objectives and restricted regional coverage targets, they are partners in technology generation and transfer. Private corporations such as seed and agrochemical companies play a key role in developing some types of technology, providing inputs, and advising farmers on their use. Ideally, extension should reach agreements with these actors so that duplication of effort is minimized and conflicting messages to farmers are avoided. At a minimum, their activities should be noted and an attempt made by extension to catalogue and use their successful methods and outputs.

Farmer organizations, particularly grass-roots organizations, are part of the utilization component. They offer an effective channel for extension contact with large numbers of farmers, as well as opportunities for participatory interaction with extension organizations. Feedback on farmer needs, production problems, and the results of adoption from such groups will be increasingly important considerations.

Concluding observations

This overview of an agricultural technology system, and the place of extension within it, has stressed the importance of understanding the dynamic context in which the system operates. The agricultural technology systems model given here places extension work in a conceptual framework that underscores the significance of contextual factors for extension planning and strategies. Systematic consideration by managers of the particular outside forces influencing an extension organization allows it to plan its resource use, approaches, methods, and linkages in ways that are responsive to farmer needs and the roles of other organizations.


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