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The agricultural extension system in Zimbabwe

Historical and organizational background

In Zimbabwe, agricultural extension was introduced in 1927 by Emory D. Alvord, who started with nine agricultural demonstration workers. Later, the Department of Conservation and Extension (Conex) and the Department of Agricultural Development (Devag) were established. The former had the institutional mandate to provide advisory services to white large-scale commercial farmers, while the latter was meant to service native smallholder farming communities. At independence in 1980, the Department of Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX) was formed as an amalgamation of Conex and Devag.

Particularly in its early days, AGRITEX faced some fairly serious problems, especially the loss of experienced staff between 1981 and 1985. As a result, both institutional memory and technical expertise in dealing with farmers (particularly large-scale commercial farmers) were lost. This was compounded by the arrival of new staff who had limited practical knowledge of dealing with farmers and providing technical expert advice. In addition, given that AGRITEX was a product of two organizations with different philosophies and experiences in dealing with farmers from different socio-economic backgrounds, it spent much of the past 20 years experimenting and establishing itself as a service for all farmers, but especially smallholder farmers.

Agricultural extension approaches used in Zimbabwe

The group development area approach

This approach was used throughout the 1960s and most of the 1970s, when a large number of group development areas (GDAs) were established in Mashonaland East Province, particularly in Murewa and Mutoko Districts. The GDA approach was based on area and project development through community participation in which, in some cases, the local people provided labour while government or donors provided the necessary inputs. The GDA concept allowed the extension service to penetrate difficult areas and introduce agricultural extension technology, as well as making it easier to introduce other development initiatives closely related to agriculture. The main drawbacks were: it was usually difficult to direct services to the needy; the focus on a particular individual or group could preclude support and services for other deserving clientele; a heavy reliance on government and donors made projects vulnerable in the event of government deficit or donor weariness; and the approach assumed that all farmers faced similar problems and operated in a homogenous environment.

Master farmer training schemes

A more widely adopted approach was the master farmer training scheme, which originated in the 1930s as a way to develop competent farmers (Chipika, 1985; Pazvakavambwa, 1994). In pre-independence Zimbabwe, most extension agents' efforts to improve smallholder agriculture followed this approach. The objective of master farmer training was to spread modern, scientific farming techniques in communal areas. Master farmer certificates and badges were awarded to communal farmers who adopted and practised improved methods. This extension approach was based on the "trickle-down" theory of extension, in which a few progressive farmers receive extension and information, which they are expected to pass on to other farmers through farmer-to-farmer dissemination and demonstration. One of the successes of these schemes was the high adoption rate of very visible innovations such as hybrid maize (Billing, cited in, Hemmes and Vissers, 1988). However, the programme failed to produce notable yield increases in many African crops because the marketing of surplus crops was difficult.

After independence AGRITEX upgraded the master farmer training scheme to include an Advanced Master Farmer Training Programme. In spite of accusations that the scheme benefits only better-off farmers, excludes the bulk of communal farmers and has little contact with other target groups, thereby actually increasing existing income differentials among social groups, it remains at the core of AGRITEX's work (Mutimba, 1997).

The radio listening group approach

The radio listening group (RLG) approach is widely used in developing countries, including Zimbabwe, where it has been tried in Chimhanda and Nswazi communal areas (Mudiwa, 1997). This approach involves gathering farmers together in groups to listen to radio programmes that address either specific geographic areas or the whole nation, depending on the heterogeneity of the farming regions. The farmer groups then discuss the extension issues raised in the programmes, and help each other to overcome any difficulties of understanding before applying any of the programmes' messages or technologies that are relevant or useful. The RLG approach helps farmers to learn about what other farmers are doing elsewhere. In addition, it creates awareness and interest at a relatively low cost per capita. On the other hand, most radio programmes provide only a one-way flow of information and lack feedback facilities. Furthermore, many African countries have only one central transmitter, which broadcasts to the whole country, so local and regional news items are often regarded as irrelevant. For example, Zimbabwean RLGs found lessons on coffee, potato, tobacco and caster bean production irrelevant to their needs (Mudiwa, 1997). Broadcasts on inconvenient week days or at busy times of day can also have a negative influence on the effectiveness and usefulness of this approach.

The training and visit system

The training and visit (T&V) system is an extension management system that was developed for the World Bank by Daniel Benor (Benor and Harrison, 1977). It was aimed at upgrading the technical content of field extension activities, while making agents' activities more predictable - and thus more accessible - to farmers. The idea was to increase the effectiveness of agricultural extension services through comprehensively structured training, delivery and administrative systems. In the approach, "proven agricultural practices", usually from international and national research centres, are translated into packages of practice recommendations. These are then passed down the extension organization's hierarchy from subject matter specialists to agricultural extension officers, who adapt recommendations to their specific areas before passing them on to village-level extension workers. Extension workers then pass the recommendations to contact farmers, who diffuse them to other farmers. In Zimbabwe, the system was modified to use extension groups instead of contact farmers. The T&V extension schedule works on a fortnightly cycle: the first week is for training and the second for visiting (evaluating progress). Subject matter specialists act as a link between research and extension, while regular training and visits are designed to facilitate linkages between extension and farmers.

T&V proved to be an excellent extension management system in irrigation projects, which follow strict timetables, but had only limited success in dryland farming. In the Midlands and Mashonaland West provinces, it contributed to increased cash crop production by smallholder farmers. The T&V system was abandoned after ten years, when evaluations found it inappropriate for a nation where resources are limited, farmers are generalists in their activities and the biophysical environment makes it impossible to follow a strict timetable (Hanyani-Mlambo, 1995). Limited farmer participation caused it to follow a top-down orientation, resulting in inappropriate and irrelevant technologies; the flow of information frequently stopped at the contact farmer/group level; and only a small proportion of farming families benefited, leading to inequalities. The rural poor who really need help were not being reached. The system was also criticized for being too mechanical in its implementation and for lacking the flexibility to make it more relevant to the needs and environment of smallholder farmers (Pazvakavambwa, 1994).

Farming systems research and extension

The farming systems research and extension (FSRE) methodology was developed as a direct response to the failure of various prescriptive agricultural development models and the realization that many recommended technologies, although technically sound, were not relevant to the objectives and socio-economic circumstances of smallholder farmers or were inappropriate to the agro-ecological conditions (Mettrick, 1993). The FSRE methodology is centred on problem solving, and is systems-oriented, interdisciplinary, farmer-oriented and iterative. It emphasizes the role of constraint diagnosis and on-farm trials as a way of facilitating linkages among the farmers, researchers and extension workers. In Zimbabwe, FSRE has largely been championed by the Farming Systems Research Unit within the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS), while AGRITEX has been more active at the grassroots level where extension workers identify trial farmers and monitor on-farm trials.

The most important innovation of FSRE is its focus on the smallholder farmer. Research and extension programmes are no longer determined exclusively by the priorities of research stations and extension organizations but by the needs of the farmers and their specific farming systems. The farming systems perspective also involves far greater concern for local resource utilization, including the use of traditional knowledge. However, traditional FSRE has tended to be more extractive than participatory, resulting in a failure to start the research and dissemination process at the farmer level. Past and current FSRE efforts have also tended to emphasize traditional cropping systems, and paid little attention to livestock components or systems. It has been criticized for its weaknesses in drawing extension considerations from practice and in incorporating its findings into the extension system.

Commodity-based approach

The commodity-based approach in agricultural extension is generally organized through parastatal organizations or private firms and is very important for cash crops or export crops. In Zimbabwe, the major cash crops are tobacco, cotton, sugar cane and a diversity of horticultural commodities. For tobacco, the commodity-based approach has not yet been very successful owing to poor attendance. On the other hand, the cotton production sector has been greatly helped by a crop research programme supported by effective commodity-based extension, which has also established some successful out-grower schemes. Smallholder farmer participation in sugar cane production has risen as a result of the commodity-based approach in which private companies offer extension and processing facilities. In horticulture, the approach has been widely used to establish out-grower schemes and provide research, extension and input credit services to interested farmers.

Despite an illustrious history and remarkable achievements, the commodity-based extension approach has drawbacks. It often gives monopoly power to the parastatals and/or crop processing or marketing companies, thus enabling them to make excess profits at the expense of struggling, and at times poverty-stricken, farmers. In addition, poor management or changes to terms of trade and pricing can result in poor returns to farmers. The approach focuses on one crop, sometimes at the expense of a local area's specific needs. Furthermore, it retains characteristics of the conventional top-down extension approach, which does not give freedom to farmers and stifles their initiatives.

Effectiveness of current agricultural extension services

Within AGRITEX, there is little information on how many farmers it is actually reaching and servicing. The extension agency offers a blanket public good service, which farmers are expected to use. Large-scale commercial farmers perceive AGRITEX as generally not competent to provide advisory services to their subsector. The majority of these farmers rely on support services from private agro-based companies. Within the smallholder sector, farm households have adopted fully the use of maize hybrid seed, but the adoption and use of supportive technologies, such as fertilizers, pesticides and recommended agronomic management practices, is generally well below 40 percent across the country (Mudimu, 1998).

AGRITEX is only able to recommend technologies that were made available 15 to 20 years ago. The problems of inappropriate technology are most serious in the low-rainfall and marginal agro-ecological zones (i.e. agro-ecological regions III to V). Most farmers indicated that, where they have not adopted recommended technologies, they use either technologies from their own informal experiments or modifications of recommended technologies. AGRITEX has neither systematically identified farmer-developed technologies that work nor adapted these for extension to other farmers in other wards, districts or provinces. This problem has been compounded by an ever-dwindling operating budget and lack of transport, which have also severely limited extension agents' contract with farmers. According to one key informant, "AGRITEX's financial woes and the government's expectations are like trying to milk a cow without feeding it", a scenario reflected by too many demands and insufficient financial backing.

Several other organizations provide agricultural services to large-scale and smallholder farmers. These services range from NGO-funded, community-based, production-oriented projects, which are aimed at income generation and improved family health and welfare, to the provision of agroservices by private companies. The current relationship between AGRITEX and NGOs is that AGRITEX is used as a technical service to back-up NGO-funded projects. AGRITEX mobilizes the farmers, helps to organize them so they can receive the service and, working hand-in-hand with project staff, provides advisory services to both project staff and farmers. All private sector agroservice companies work with AGRITEX when extending their commercial services to agricultural producers. AGRITEX personnel mobilize and organize the farming community to facilitate the commercial activities of these private sector companies. In addition, AGRITEX services are used to provide farmers with technical backup and advice on utilizing the technologies. The heavy reliance on AGRITEX makes it a principal actor in the local extension system. Its weaknesses and the constraints it faces have repercussions throughout the local extension system.

Achievements of the last 20 years include: increased production of crops such as maize and cotton by communal farmers; national development through participation in and the initiation of rural development projects; and restored confidence in professional and technical extension services. AGRITEX has also countered the damage caused by loss of experienced personnel by embarking on a staff development programme, which has strengthened its professional image. In rural areas, the agricultural extension system provides more than extension. It has also played a major role in rural people's development efforts through rural development projects that are planned, initiated and facilitated by AGRITEX; this has been the agency's most significant achievement since independence. AGRITEX has been disbanded under recent restructuring within the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement, thereby placing research and extension functions under the same directorate.

New agricultural extension approaches

A number of relatively new agricultural extension approaches have emerged, including: participatory extension approaches, participatory learning approaches, participatory rural appraisals, rapid rural appraisals, participatory technology development, farmer field schools, innovative farmer workshops, and look-and-learn tours. In other new and emerging extension approaches - farmer-first, farmer-back-to-farmer, farmer-to-farmer extension and facilitation - extension agents respond to farmers' requests and programmes and visit farmers only when required. These bottom-up approaches enable farmers to take the initiative, make decisions and choose among different service providers, based on an organization's ability to deliver appropriate services. AGRITEX has also been experimenting with project-based extension, in which a group of farmers work on a project, such as pig production, while learning the production aspects that will allow them to implement that project on their own. Although AGRITEX and some of its innovative agricultural extension agents have already began experimenting with some of these new approaches, they are still in their trial stages and have not yet been fully adopted at the operational level.

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