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Posted March 1996

Mahasahana - A Participatory Extension Network in Sri Lanka

by Graeme Thomas,
FAO Information Consultant
(extracted from "Ceres" magazine, No. 145, Vol. 26 No. 1)
See also Special: Participation in practice - Lessons from the FAO People's Participation Programme
Farmers in Kurunegala district, on the edge of Sri Lanka's dry zone, are getting used to visits from inquisitive foreigners. Over the past two years, they've spent hours talking to international fact-finding missions, cost-benefit analysts, Zambian extension agents, project staff from Pakistan, crop experts from India and, now, an Australian journalist. "We're attracting a lot of attention these days," observed a puzzled farmer in the village of Konwewa, as he joined a dozen neighbours for their latest interview. "Why is that?". Over hot tea and mungbean cakes, answers emerged:

"What new farming practices have you adopted in recent years?"
"We used to cultivate in our own way," a woman replied. "Now we know more about soil conservation, draining slopes and making bunds with weeds."

"Anything else?"
"We've been trained in when to spray pesticide and the correct amounts to use." "Once we grew the same cowpea in both the wet and dry seasons," added a male farmer. "Now we've adopted a drought-resistant variety that produces better yields in the dry." "I've learned the right time to harvest mungbean and how to store it until market prices improve."

"How did you get information about these new practices? From your extension agent?"
"Neh!" the farmers answered, in one voice. "We hardly ever see an extension officer in Konwewa," an elderly farmer explained. "There was a village extensionist here once, but he was always with the big farmers, the respectable people."

"So how did you find out all these things?"
"Most of it we got through the village union or our group promoter. We heard about the new cowpea variety from the GP and sent our agriculture committee for training. They came back with seed and leaflets and helped the groups test it. It's been a good investment."

"How do you farmers think the government extension service could be improved?"
"The main problems of small farmers are lack of credit, inputs, markets and agricultural knowledge," said a group secretary. "The extension service could help us solve all these problems if their agents contacted our groups. Or they could go straight to our village union. That way, they save time and their message reaches all of us."

Multiply Konwewa's experience by that of 100 other hamlets in Kurunegala and the adjoining district of Matale, and you begin to realize what has aroused so much interest within the development community: a grassroots, participatory extension system that may actually work.

Dictated by necessity

The Matale and Kurunegala farmers belong to Mahasahana (translatable from Singhalese as "great benefit"), a network of small self-help groups created since 1985 by a joint project of FAO and Sri Lanka's Ministry of Agricultural Development and Research (MADR). One year after the project's termination, Mahasahana continues as a non-governmental organization embracing more than 2,000 farmers organized in 225 groups and linked through 23 village unions and two district federations. More than a third of the low-income rural population in Matale and Kurunegala has joined the network and in some villages almost every small farmer household is "mahasahana."

The movement's three-tier structure - and the ongoing assistance of nine group promoters (GPs) employed by MADR - has proven effective in linking the groups to development services and, particularly, to sources of agricultural information and technology. Yet, the creation of a participatory extension system was not among the project's primary objectives. Said Sudath de Abrew, a MADR assistant director seconded to manage the project, "the emergence of participatory extension was dictated by pure necessity."

For, as fate would have it, the project coincided with the almost total breakdown of MADR's Division of Agricultural Extension. Ironically, that occurred in the wake of an ambitious World Bank-funded project that should have turned Sri Lanka's extension service into one of the best in the Third World. Under the US$22 million project, which was prepared by FAO, Sri Lanka adopted in 1980 the World Bank's Training-and-Visit (T&V) extension approach. It entailed boosting the division's manpower by 50 percent in order to field one full-time village extensionist for every 750 farmers. Through a rigid schedule of fortnightly visits, the extensionists were to maintain almost constant contact with the farming community and introduce simple, low-cost technology packages suited to near-subsistence cultivators.

But T&V had - in Sri Lanka, at least - a fatal flaw. Linchpin of the entire system was the "contact farmer," chosen by each village extensionist to receive his messages and pass them along to groups of "follower farmers." A pilot T&V scheme in Sri Lanka had already warned that many extensionists "improperly select rich farmers around whom small farmers would not normally gather." The new project offered no remedy to this problem, but went ahead anyway. Studies since have confirmed that most of the contact farmers chosen were indeed medium- to large-scale cultivators whose extension needs were very different from those of their poorer neighbours. Years later, the World Bank would conclude, matter-of-factly, that "the contact farmer's role as the main agent of technology transfer was quite limited."

It gets worse. Once project funding ended, in 1985, the extension service found itself so over-staffed that by 1988 extension was costing almost one percent of agricultural GDP. When the Sri Lanka government decided in 1988 to triple the number of village-level administrators, it needed to look no further for candidates than the bloated ranks of the Agricultural Extension Division. Overnight, some 3,000 village extensionists - virtually the division's entire grassroots cadre - were transferred to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs. In the process, most Sri Lankan small farmers lost what little contact they had with agricultural extension.

A mechanism for interaction

"The T&V experience was very valuable," said project director Sudath de Abrew. "It showed that a single contact farmer, especially a big farmer, cannot represent the poor. To understand their needs and provide technology and information suited to their resources, there must be a mechanism that allows the extension service and small farmers to interact. In our project, Mahasahana filled that role."

Mahasahana's basic unit is a group of eight to 15 small farmers, tenant cultivators or artisans who, upon joining, have household incomes below the national poverty line (wealthier farmers are excluded on the grounds that their interests are different - often diametrically opposed - to those of the poor). The small size of the groups permits a high level of internal democracy. Standard practice is to rotate leadership positions among the members each month so that all gain experience in public speaking, record-keeping and consensus decision-making.

GPs advise newly formed groups to undertake, initially, productive activities that do not require external assistance. In fact, the chief enterprise of most groups is labour pooling - members help each other to prepare land, plant and harvest, thus increasing their cultivated acreage and reducing their labour costs. More ambitious undertakings that demand credit, training or new technologies - such as cash cropping, seed-oil extraction and animal husbandry - usually emerge as the farmers' confidence grows and bonds of friendship strengthen.

The starting point for these activities is the farmers' estimation of their own needs. This is carried out at weekly group meetings and intensifies before the onset of the wet and dry seasons, when members prepare their individual cultivation plans. Each group collates these plans - along with proposals for collective enterprises - to calculate its credit, extension and input requirements. The group plans are then consolidated by the village union, composed of two elected representatives from each group in a cluster of adjacent hamlets. Action to meet the groups' requests is usually delegated to village union committees dealing with health, credit, marketing, small-scale industries and agriculture. In organizing extension, the agriculture committee has taken over duties once performed by the village extensionist: it initiates variety trials, arranges distribution of inputs and contacts sources of training. Training may be requested for a particular group or for agriculture committee members, who share what they learn with the other farmers.

Given the chaotic state of the extension service, the project itself met many of the farmers' extension requests. In Bakmeewewa village, Kurunegala, for example, farmers credited their GP with having introduced improved soybean and row-sowing of finger millet, while the project office had provided training in cowpea cultivation and rice parboiling. The farmer chosen for the parboiling course had less than two years of schooling. "It was the first time I'd been trained in anything," she said. "We studied processing, marketing and how to calculate production costs. But it wasn't difficult. When we learned about marketing, we were asked to give examples from our own experience with traders. When I came back I conducted three training sessions for my group."

But the project was uneasy in its role as an extension agency. "The project had to end eventually," de Abrew said. "To be sustainable, Mahasahana had to establish a permanent relationship with the government extension service. So we tried to link the groups to sub-district extension officers who, under T&V, supervised the village extensionists. We continued to inform the groups about new varieties or techniques, but left it to them to contact an extension officer for more details."

Partnership with extensionists...

GPs linked Mahasahana to the extension service by arranging meetings between group representatives and their local extension officer, or conveying an invitation for him or her to attend a session of the village union. At first, however, some officers were reluctant to deal face-to-face with small farmers. "A few were always 'too busy' and told the farmers to come back later," said de Abrew. "But the groups wouldn't wait and began writing letters of complaint to the officers' superiors. This led to some tension." One farmer was even arrested after a fierce argument with his local extensionist.

"That phase is behind us now," de Abrew said. "Most of the officers realize that participatory extension actually saves them time and energy." An extension officer in Kurunegala confirmed this change of heart. "Since I lost my village extensionists, I have to cover a range containing 6,000 farmers," he said. "But working through the Mahasahana groups is very easy. We don't have regular meetings, but if they need me they contact me. In one village, the groups were concerned about low paddy production. We discussed the problem and decided the solution was a high-yielding variety. I conducted training and their agriculture committee organized the purchase of seed and fertilizer. In another case, the village union started a pigeon pea demonstration plot and called me in to advise them as problems arose." A farmer in the village of Manikdeniya, Matale, put it more succinctly: "We help the government officers to do their job."

Partnerships between Mahasahana and extension officers have formed throughout the project area. In Matale district, extensionists played a key role in the adoption of large-scale - and highly profitable - onion cultivation by small farmers. Sri Lanka imported onions from India and Pakistan until the early 1980s, when commercial farmers began growing them for the domestic market. Recognizing an income opportunity, groups in Matale's Dambulla division established a trial onion plot with project assistance and asked their local extension officer for training. "He already had experience from his work with the big farmers," group members in Manikdeniya explained. "He gave us all the information we needed about costing, nursery management and cultivation practices." Following a bumper harvest that first year, onion production spread rapidly among the Matale groups until, by 1993, it was one of their main income-earners.

The Mahasahana farmers gave many other examples of cooperation with the extension service. In Alakolamada village, Matale, a group started a goat-rearing business after the local veterinarian trained members in goat care and pen construction. In nearby Rattota, an extensionist helped groups to take up rice processing. "We heard about it at a project training course in Kandy," a group member said. "We asked the GP to help find us training and he brought in the extension officer to conduct a course." In Padipanchawa, Kurunegala, the village union invited an extension officer to meet them because they had heard "he was the person responsible for new varieties." The union president recalled: "He saw our chilli nursery and our groups' record books and said he was sorry he hadn't heard about our organization earlier. He helped us a lot with chilli cultivation and the correct spacing of banana trees."

Ready-made solutions

Many farmers, however, were still dissatisfied with the quality of the extension they received. "Only half of the information we get is relevant to our needs," said H.M. Kularathna, chairman of a committee that links five village unions in Matale. "Sometimes the extensionists propose production plans that require big bank loans, tractors and pesticides. The rich farmers can afford that, but we can't." An extensionist agreed. "Some of the advice we give small farmers is not appropriate," he said. "We conduct trials and demonstrate ways of achieving higher yields, but adopting these practices requires money and land - resources that small farmers don't have."

A common complaint was that the extension service offered "ready-made solutions" - and sometimes erroneous advice. In Matale, a farmer said he had called for assistance after the leaves of his bean crop began to turn yellow. "The officer recommended a chemical spray which I used, but the problem remained," he said. "So I examined the roots and discovered that the real cause was fungus. The solution was better drainage of the soil." An extension agent in Dambulla suggested a group grow lemon-grass as a cash crop. "But we knew immediately we wouldn't have had enough water to cultivate it," a group member said. In Padipanchawa, farmers dismissed advice to raise cashew trees - experience had taught them that cashews do grow on the area's sandy soil, but bear no fruit. As more than one farmer observed: "The extension officers have theoretical knowledge, but we've been farming all our lives."

There are encouraging signs, however, that the extension service is beginning to value Mahasahana's views and experience. "Before, if a government officer suggested a solution we had to listen and then he went away," said a group secretary in Manikdeniya. "Now, when they come to our meetings, we ask a lot of questions and argue. They're learning to talk with us more."

The benefits of such two-way communication were borne out when village unions in Matale and Kurunegala agreed to conduct on-farm trials of finished pigeon pea lines from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India. MADR approached the Mahasahana farmers, Sudath de Abrew said, "because they were organized and they were interested. Prices for maize were low and they were looking for a drought-resistant alternative."

The first trials, held in the 1989/1990 wet season, were carried out by two village unions in Matale with the assistance of a MADR coordinator, who supplied inputs and arranged training for group members at a local research station. The groups established 10 quarter-acre demonstration plots, monitored growth and reported results to MADR and a team of visiting ICRISAT scientists. In the following wet season, 17 groups in Kurunegala conducted similar trials.

The farmers' final evaluation: of the three pigeon pea lines tested, one performed well, yielding up to two tons per hectare. But while the crop had some potential, it also suffered several drawbacks. First, the recommended pesticide was too expensive "and not very effective against pests." Harvesting from plots of more than a quarter-acre would require more labour than the farmers had available, processing the pea into dhal was complicated and time-consuming, and there was no local demand for unprocessed seeds. As a small farmer's crop, Mahasahana concluded, ICRISAT's new pigeon pea had some room for improvement.

Within MADR and FAO, Mahasahana is regarded as a model for small farmer development programs. It is also seen as a promising vehicle for grassroots participation in local government - by July 1992, more than 70 Mahasahana farmers were serving on village councils, 20 of them as chairmen. Another 120 held official positions in other rural institutions, including cooperatives, funeral societies and sub-district consultative committees.

MADR has created a Small Farmer Group Development Unit to promote farmer participation in Sri Lanka's rural development programs and play a role in the World Bank extension project. Said Sudath de Abrew, who has been chosen to direct the new unit: "It is important that what we have learned is put to use for the benefit of small farmers all over the country. Mahasahana has much to teach the agricultural extension service, and not only in Sri Lanka."

  • See also : Progress in strengthening small farmer group development in Sri Lanka.

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