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Chapter 19 - Strengthening research-extension-farmer linkages

Burton E. Swanson

Burton E. Swanson is Professor and Director of the International Program for Agricultural Knowledge Systems (INTERPAKS), College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Agricultural technology: Some basic concepts
Using systems analysis to identify linkage problems
Categories of technology
Using different mechanisms to solve linkage problems
Linkages with farmers and their organizations

The lack of a close working relationship between national agricultural research and extension organizations, and with different categories of farmers and farm organizations, is one of the most difficult institutional problems confronting ministries of agriculture in many developing nations. Research and extension organizations generally compete over the same scarce government resources and, frequently, leaders of these institutions do not see themselves as part of a broader system: the agricultural technology system (ATS). Instead, they try to increase the flow of resources coming to their respective institutions and to solve day-to-day management problems, rather than ensuring that their respective organizations contribute to the broader goal of getting improved agricultural technology to all major categories of farmers. In addition, the leadership and staff of many research and extension organizations do not appreciate the important roles that farmers and farmer organizations can play, both in disseminating technology and, through effective feedback mechanisms, in helping set priorities and improving programme relevance.

The objective of this chapter is to outline an approach for identifying research-extension-farmer linkage problems, and then to describe different mechanisms that might be used to solve these problems. Three basic assumptions underlie this chapter. First, agricultural technology is a complex blend of materials, processes, and knowledge. Second, because of the complexity of agricultural technology, different institutional arrangements are needed to transfer different types of technology to technology users. And, third, most small-scale farmers in developing nations operate relatively complex farming systems in each agroecological zone (AEZ) of the country; consequently, farmers in different AEZs need access to a wide variety of locally validated technologies if they are to increase their productivity.

Agricultural technology: Some basic concepts

At the most theoretical level, technology is the application of knowledge for practical purposes. Generally, technology is used to improve the human condition, the natural environment, or to carry out other socioeconomic activities. Technology can be classified into two major categories: (1) material technology, where knowledge is embodied into a technological product such as tools, equipment, agrochemicals, improved plant varieties or hybrids, improved breeds of animals (e.g., semen from progeny-tested sires used for artificial insemination), and vaccines; and (2) knowledge-based technology such as the technical knowledge, management skills, and other processes that farmers need to successfully grow a crop or produce animal products.

The transfer of material technology to farmers generally involves the production, distribution, and sale of seeds, implements, agrochemicals, and other production inputs. Therefore, the transfer process for material technology is generally simpler than training and disseminating technical knowledge and management skills to large numbers of poorly educated farmers who operate in different agroecological zones (i.e., the extension function). Also, the delivery systems needed for these different types of technologies are generally different. In most cases, the private sector is best suited to produce and distribute material technology. On the other hand, most knowledge-based technologies such as improved crop or livestock management practices, integrated pest management (IPM), and soil and water management practices are generally taught through vocational training programs for rural young people or disseminated through a publicly funded extension system for adult farmers.

At the same time, most material technology requires technical knowledge so that these products or tools can be used effectively. For example, to properly use an agrochemical in pest management, farmers need to know the proper application rates, the time and conditions for application, safety procedures, and so forth. In addition, if farmers use a sprayer (another type of material technology) to apply agrochemicals, then they need to know how to operate, adjust, calibrate, and clean the equipment to achieve the best results. Therefore, material and know-ledge-based technologies are generally closely intertwined. Private sector firms in developing countries have very limited technical capacity to train farmers in these product-related skills and knowledge; therefore, the transfer of most knowledge-based technologies is, by design or by default, left to the national or provincial extension system.

Using systems analysis to identify linkage problems

Systems analysis is an effective procedure to use in identifying linkage problems, since it is a problem-solving methodology. An outgrowth of operations research during World War II, systems analysis has been successfully applied in numerous fields, especially as a management tool to analyse, design, and implement complex technical processes. In short, systems analysis systematically examines a problem and makes each step of the analysis explicit. For example, in agricultural research, each disciplinary or commodity researcher (e.g., a plant breeder or agronomist) has relatively routine research methods that are commonly used in the process of developing specific technologies for a particular commodity (e.g., determining plant population, fertility, and other technical recommendations for a new cereal variety that has just been released for a particular AEZ). The problem is how to integrate these individual research efforts and relate them to broader system objectives such as increasing the productivity of different groups of farmers throughout the country. To achieve these objectives, the ATS will need to develop and transfer a package of recommendations for all of the economically important commodities being produced within different farming systems in each AEZ. By using a systems approach, it is possible to examine each system component and linkage at different levels within an ATS. In the process, specific system constraints and weaknesses can be easily identified, and then the most appropriate intervention strategy can be determined.

To understand what is meant by systems analysis, it might be helpful to start with some basic concepts. First, a system is an organized set of functions and linkages that can be managed to achieve a specific goal or set of objectives. Therefore, systems analysis helps make key functions and linkages within an ATS or research-extension system explicit or transparent. This procedure allows these different functions and linkages to be assessed and brought under management control, particularly in light of their overall contribution to ATS objectives. In short, technology development and transfer activities in agriculture involve very complex, interdisciplinary processes and interinstitutional relationships. Only by using systems analysis can managers begin to systematically analyse, manage, and monitor the various functions and linkages within their part of an ATS.

Second, what are the institutional components that typically make up an ATS? Figure 1 portrays the major institutional components that are found within most national ATSs, including a representation of some linkages used to help integrate this macrotechnology system. In this diagram, research and extension are divided into their respective subunits and operate within the policy direction and support of the ministry of agriculture. In addition, the production and distribution of genetic technology, agrochemicals, and other types of material technology are regulated by the ministry of agriculture. Also, as shown in Figure 1, farmers and their organizations provide feedback to research and extension and to input suppliers.

Figure 1. Institutional components of an agricultural technology system.

Third, one dimension of systems analysis is the use of key indicators to measure the inputs, activities, and outputs from each subsystem and component within an overall ATS. For example, human and financial resources allocated to various components or programmes within the research and extension system can be easily measured. Key input indicators include the percentage of the budget that is allocated to operational costs, the proportion and quality (educational qualifications and experience) of subject-matter specialists (SMSs) in relation to field staff, and so forth. For example, through research it has been determined that most research and extension organization allocate most of their financial resources to salaries, leaving too few resources for programme and operational costs (a target would be 35 per cent for operational costs). Also, most extension systems do not have sufficient numbers of competent SMSs to collaborate and link with their research counterparts (a target would be 20 per cent SMSs within the extension staff). Key performance indicators for crop management technology include, among others, the number of on-farm trials and demonstrations carried out in an AEZ. For more information on this aspect of analysing ATSs, see Swanson and Peterson (1989) and Swanson, Sands, and Peterson (1990).

Fourth, flow diagrams are used within systems analysis to map or illustrate the relationship of key functions and linkages for different types of technology within a national ATS. Therefore, through consultation with research and extension managers about key indicators and to develop a flow diagram for specific categories of technology, weak linkages or total gaps in the flow of technology can be easily identified and made transparent. Once problems are identified, this same procedure can be used to simulate the effect of alternative mechanisms that might be used to bridge these gaps and to strengthen weak relationships. Figures 2 and 3 illustrate both a poorly and a well-linked research-extension system for developing and disseminating crop management technology.

Figure 2 depicts a poorly linked research and extension (R&E) system, where the commodity research team does not collaborate directly with extension's subject-matter specialists (SMS) in planning, conducting, and interpreting data from agronomic trials. Also, these researchers do not interact with farmers or their organizations in the process of identifying production problems, setting research priorities, or in carrying out these trials. Furthermore, in this case, researchers do not discuss research findings with subject-matter specialists in the process of developing farmer recommendations; rather, they send a research report to extension that summarizes their findings. At this point, it is up to the SMS to interpret these findings and formulate a package of recommendations for dissemination to farmers. However, most SMSs lack sufficient analytical skills, including the ability to use economic criteria, in formulating technical recommendations. Recommended practices may thus reflect the government's goal of maximizing production, rather than the goals of farmers, which may be to maximize income. As a result, the package of recommendations may not be suitable for most farmers, especially resource poor farmers.

Figure 2. Poorly linked research and extension system.

Figure 3 reflects a more fully integrated research and extension system for developing crop management technology for a specific commodity. The process begins with a joint assessment of farmer resources, constraints, and priorities. This needs assessment process (see chapter 5) could be carried out through a rapid or participatory rural appraisal (see chapter 6). Then, at each step in the process of developing technical recommendations, there is a close working relationship between researchers, SMSs, and farmers, until research findings are finally tested and demonstrated on farmers' fields.

Figure 3. Linked research-extension-farmer system for crop management technology.

Technical recommendations that emerge from this collaborative process have the full confidence of researchers, extension personnel, and farmers, and have a much higher probability of being adopted once the extension field staff begins the widespread dissemination of this technology.

The advantage of using flow diagrams to map and analyse key functions and linkages within an agricultural technology system (ATS) is that each part or level of the system can be broken down into its constituent subsystems, components, functions, and corresponding linkages. Therefore, the research or extension manager can provide (management) oversight and coordination for each set of functions or linkages - for each system level - all the way down to individual researchers and SMSs who are carrying out their own programme of work in developing, testing, and disseminating a package of recommendations for a particular commodity or farming system. Contrast this functional depiction of various aspects of a technology system with information that is conveyed by examining organograms for research and extension organizations. These organizational charts primarily focus attention on the command and control structure of the organization, rather than on the technical or functional relationships that are necessary to ensure the flow of technology to farmers, plus farmer feedback throughout this process.

In management, there is a saying that structure follows function. In other words, the structure of an organization should reflect and support the work functions and processes that need to be carried out at each system level as the organization seeks to carry out its respective goals and objectives, as well as those of the larger (technology) system. In practice, most managers think about structure first, rather than trying to modify or build the structure (and organizational resources) around the key functions to be accomplished. It is not unlike the process of building a house; the process begins with the priorities of the homeowner, including how different functions will be arranged, the level of resources to be allocated for each function, and the key relationships that must exist between the different activity centres within the house. If an architect does not consider function first, then he or she might end up with a building that does not meet the needs of the homeowner.

Categories of technology

To understand the different roles that research, extension, input supply dealers, and other system actors should play in the technology development and transfer process, it is essential to differentiate between the different categories of technology. Although there are some common elements, each category of technology has its own unique functional relationship within a national ATS. Flow diagrams can be used as a diagnostic tool to identify linkage problems in any ATS by tracking different types of technology through the research-extension system. Each category of technology follows a different channel as new technology is developed and transferred to farmers. In each case, it is possible to develop a functional map of the existing system to determine if serious linkage problems exist. Because of space limitations, it will not be possible to illustrate flow diagrams for different categories of technology (see Swanson, 1993), but the types that should be examined include the following:

Crops Technology
Genetic (improved varieties or hybrids)
Crop management practices
Plant protection (e.g., IPM)
Cropping systems

Livestock Technology
Genetic (breed improvement)
Livestock management practices
Animal health practices
Forage or range management

Other Types of Technology
Farming systems
Soil and water management practices
Farm mechanization
Post-harvest technology
Farm management

It is important to note that different types of crop or livestock technologies have both hardware and software components. For example, a new crop variety, as a type of material technology, cannot be fully exploited without having a complementary set of agronomic or crop management practices, including pest management. Likewise, improved breeds of livestock generally require higher levels of management, including improved nutrition, housing, and preventive health practices. Therefore, the functional relationship or linkages, both within and across different categories of technology, must be carefully examined in identifying constraints that limit the flow of technology within an ATS.

Using different mechanisms to solve linkage problems

Linkage mechanisms are used to channel information between groups and to coordinate required tasks in the process of getting relevant technologies to farmers. In the process, these linkage activities help to improve resource use by avoiding the duplication of effort and ensuring that critical tasks do not fall through the institutional cracks. In an effective ATS, numerous groups depend on one another to get improved technology to farmers. These groups have to work in concert and, as suggested for crop management technology in Figure 3, the failure of one link in the chain diminishes the overall performance of an ATS (Merrill-Sands, 1992).

There are two basic types of linkage mechanisms: organizational and managerial. Organizational mechanisms involve the structural modification of the research and/or extension organization or other organizations that are involved in an ATS. These modifications may range from the formal merger of research and extension at the broader system level, the merger of specific units within research or extension, or it could involve the creation of new positions, units, or permanent committees. In general, when reorganizing, be sure to combine those groups that are either dependent or that need to communicate with each other to get a job done. Also, put people together whose work might overlap to avoid duplication of activities (Merrill-Sands, 1992). On the other hand, in some cases it might be appropriate to create a coordination position, such as a research-extension liaison officer or to explicitly assign coordination functions to a specific position or unit (e.g., SMSs).

Alternatively, permanent committees, with representation from two or more units that need to collaborate, can be created and charged with the responsibility of coordinating and facilitating the flow of technology and feedback through the ATS. In creating a permanent committee, there must be agreement among all participating organizations or units that (1) such a committee is essential and that it should meet on a regular basis, (2) its members are senior enough to implement decisions and recommendations, (3) the committee's mandate is limited to programme coordination, and (4) the committee's work is visible and supported by senior management (Men-ill-Sands, 1992).

The other major type of linkage mechanisms involves a range of managerial interventions. For example, research and extension may agree to collaborate on joint planning and review activities, such as conducting RRA or PRA in different agroecological zones to assess the farming systems and technology needs of different groups of farmers. These activities would likely result in joint priority-setting and in planning joint programme activities (e.g., on-farm trials and demonstrations). A second category of managerial linkages is when researchers and SMSs actually carry out collaborative programme activities together, such as on-farm trials and demonstrations, plus joint decision making on technical recommendations. In the process of carrying out these different programme activities, researchers and their extension counterparts share the responsibility for different tasks and regularly consult with each other on an informal basis. In short, through collaborative programme activities, research and extension personnel develop a positive professional relationship that is important, if not essential, in facilitating the flow of technology and feedback information within an ATS.

Other types of related managerial mechanisms include resource allocation procedures such as allocating time and financial resources for specific linkage activities. For example, an adaptive research or farming systems research team might be housed in a district or regional extension office so that they would have a closer working relationship with SMSs. Alternatively, SMSs might be assigned to a regional experiment station to work directly with one or more commodity research teams. Finally, various training and communications devices can be used to improve the flow of information and technology within an ATS. For example, a commodity research team and extension SMSs might collaborate on a joint farmer training activity; electronic mail is now being introduced in some countries to improve technical communications between research and extension personnel.

To illustrate both organizational and managerial linkages, two simplified organograms are presented in Figures 4 and 5. Figure 4 illustrates a variety of different managerial linkages, both within and between research and extension organizations. The actual types of linkage mechanisms have not been specified in the figure, but horizontal linkages between research and extension generally involve planning, review, and collaborative activities.

Figure 4. Simplified research and extension structure illustrating a fully linked system.

Vertical linkages with each organization tend to involve resource allocation, training, and communications linkage activities. For example, assigning SMSs and FSR/commodity research personnel to carry out joint (linkage) activities and providing the travel and operational costs to successfully carry out these activities would demonstrate the commitment of both research and extension managers to these activities. In addition, there could be a permanent committee, at the national level, as an example of an organizational mechanism for each of the major crops and livestock species grown in the country.

Linkages with farmers and their organizations

Figure 5 depicts organizational mechanisms within an extension system to improve planning and feedback linkages with farmers and their organizations (both general farm organizations and commodity groups). In this example, farmers are formally represented on standing (permanent) extension advisory committees at the district, provincial, and national levels. In general, members on these advisory committees would be elected by farmers through their respective organizations, from the bottom up. For example, different farmer groups or associations within a district would be allocated one or more seats on the extension advisory committee; therefore, they would elect a representative to that committee for a two-or three-year term (depending on the committee's by-laws). This district advisory committee, in turn, would elect a chairperson and/or a representative who would serve on the provincial extension advisory committee (along with chairpersons or representatives from the other district advisory committees in the province), and so forth up to the national level. If advisory committee membership is selected by the research or extension director, then the value of these advisory committees will be severely compromised; members of these committees must represent farmer interests and concerns.

Figure 5. Simplified agricultural extension system showing farmer linkages through advisory committees.

In the case of research, each provincial and/or national commodity research programme should have an advisory committee composed of farmer-elected representatives who give each commodity research director specific direction and feedback on programme problems and priorities specific to each commodity. In addition, provincial or regional research stations should have an advisory committee that reflects the geographic interests, problems, and concerns of farmers within the province or region. Finally, there should be crop, livestock, and/or a general research advisory panel organized at the provincial and/or national level to provide the opportunity for stakeholder input into research policies, priorities, and other concerns that cut across the research system. At these higher system levels, agribusiness representatives (input suppliers and processors) may join farmers in being represented on these research and extension advisory committees.

In addition to these formal linkage mechanisms, both research and extension personnel would be expected to have regular, informal contacts with different groups of farmers in their respective service area. As depicted in Figure 3, these linkages would occur through farmer participation in RRA or PRA activities (periodic needs assessment); also, they would occur while carrying out joint on-farm trials and demonstrations and during meetings and field days where farmers would have the opportunity to articulate different problems and concerns. The value of both formal and informal farmer feedback systems depends, in large part, on whether research and extension personnel, including senior management, are listening to what farmers and their representatives are saying. Too often, research and extension have become top-down, bureaucratic organizations that are not receptive or responsive to the needs of farmers. However, to become demand driven, research and extension organizations, directors, specialists and other research and extension personnel must be listening to what farmers are communicating through both informal and formal linkage mechanisms.


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Swanson, B. E., Sands, C. M., & Peterson, W. E. (1990). Analyzing agricultural technology systems: Some methodological tools. In R, G. Echeverria (Ed.), Methods for diagnosing research system constraints and assessing the impact of agricultural research (Vol. I). The Hague: International Service for National Agricultural Research.

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