Agricultural extension services can be improved by leveraging tools like information and communication technologies, trainer incentives, or social learning to support small-scale farmers’ decisions to invest in new, profitable practices.
Extension programs that target both male and female members of the household or bundle advisory services with other offerings focused on alleviating gender-based barriers can also improve women’s agricultural outcomes.
Farmers need many types of information to assess the suitability of new technologies and make optimal farming decisions.
This is especially important given that agricultural technologies may have different levels of risk depending on local land characteristics and input choices, making it difficult for farmers to predict production outcomes on their own land without reliable information.
Access to information about the proper use and benefits of new practices is often cited as a binding constraint for small-scale farmers in many low-income settings, leading to lower realised yields and profits.
Agricultural extension is the most common model used to transmit information to farmers in low and middle-income countries, and it is often one of national agriculture ministries’ primary programs.
These traditional extension systems often use top-down approaches, like training and visit, and bottom-up approaches, like farmer field schools or peer farmer learning, to encourage the adoption of new technologies.
However, many extension systems face challenges with staff capacity and accountability to reach all farmers reliably.
Extensionists’ recommendations sometimes may not sufficiently consider farmer profit incentives for technology adoption, focusing instead on yield maximization based on experimental evidence from test land that do not smoothly translate to real farm settings.
The content, frequency, and channel by which information is disseminated plays an important role in boosting farmers’ adoption of technologies and improving agricultural outcomes.
As an, farmer social networks can help drive the diffusion of new technologies by lending credibility to extension programs and encouraging information to pass from neighbour to neighbour, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are effective in tailoring information to farmers’ needs and enabling the comprehension of complex technologies.
Many of these programs increases farmer knowledge and adoption of new practices, though impacts on yields and profits can be less consistent.
Women farmers face unique barriers in accessing agricultural information.
Some women are less likely to be targeted by formal extension programs in part because they are often marginalised, have less agricultural decision making power within their own household and can be less connected to community social networks.
In such scenario, ensuring that extension programs target both members of the household as well as bundling information services with other services focused on alleviating gender based barriers can improve the adoption of inputs as well as agricultural decision making power.
In the context of a new technology or practice, extension services can serve an important role in helping farmers make informed decisions about technology adoption.
In Sierra Leone, a randomised evaluation of the rollout of a new improved rice seed variety, NERICA, found that yields only increased for farmers who received extension services alongside free seed kits.
Those who received seeds alone did not experience gains in yields.
This may be because the seed variety tested required associated changes in production practices to reap returns, highlighting the importance of information on best practices and simultaneous adoption of complementary inputs or practices rather than adopting the technology in isolation.
Many extension services do not reach all farmers directly and may be ineffective in part because they do not reflect farmers’ incentives to maximise profits.
Agricultural recommendations from top-down approaches often prioritise yield maximisation and are based on experimental evidence from controlled test plots that do not often mirror the variety of real farming conditions in a given area.
The Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture based their recommended fertilizer amounts on maximising yields, which may serve broader food security goals, but the optimal amount from the farmers’ perspective to maximise profit was considerably lower.
In Bali, Indonesia, seaweed farmers preferred to use the traditionally optimal amount and spacing of seaweed because adopting the recommendations of a local NGO run extension program would have reduced farmer profits (but increased yields).
Policymakers should therefore consider farmers’ priorities and incentives for technology adoption in designing persuasive messaging informed by, and tailored to local agricultural conditions.
When lack of capacity and trust in recommendations are prevalent concerns, relying on social learning to disseminate information can improve the takeup of new technologies.
In Malawi, researchers tested whether the position of a contact farmer within a community’s social network affected other maize farmers’ decisions to adopt a new planting technique.
Farmers who had social ties with multiple contact farmers were 33 percent and 90 percent more likely to have heard about pit planting and to adopt the technique, respectively, by the second year of the program relative to farmers with no social connections.
However, in Mozambique, the increase in technology adoption was concentrated among contact farmers who received training directly with modest information diffusion via social learning from others in the community.
In cases where variations in plot characteristics or social distance between messengers and peers may inhibit social learning, it may be important for farmers to see someone in their network use a new technology before they are convinced to adopt the practice themselves.
While social learning is an important platform for disseminating agricultural information, contact farmers may face social incentives (e.g., positive or negative preferences for the welfare of others) that can shape program delivery.
In India, providing agrodealers with experimental kits and information about a new flood-tolerant rice seed variety to pass on to their customers increased farmer-level adoption by 56 percent.
This increase was at least partly driven by dealers actively passing along information to farmers, themselves motivated by profits from expanded sales.
Additionally, giving farmers a mechanism to provide feedback on trainings can also improve trust and engagement with extension services.
In Rwanda, farmer groups who received access to feedback tools for an agricultural input and training service were half as likely to have members leave the service in the following year as comparison farmer groups.
This suggests that offering feedback channels for farmers and aligning trainers’ incentives for disseminating information can be important factors in sustaining farmer demand for agricultural extension services.
Tools that simplify new practices for farmers or leverage ICTs can help farmers better understand and implement complex production processes.
Providing farmers with innovative tools for the proper usage of inputs, such as fertilizer, can help them adopt improved farming practices.
In Bangladesh, providing rice farmers with leaf color charts to inform urea fertilizer application aligned the farmers’ timing of fertilization with productive periods during the growing cycle.
ICTs, such as phone calls and videos, are an increasingly common and successful medium for conveying technical information in a digestible manner.
In Ethiopia, combining traditional extension with public video screenings on integrated soil fertility management (a strategy used to improve soil productivity and combat land degradation) improved farmer knowledge and adoption of recommended practices by 15 percent and 38 percent, respectively, relative to farmers who did not receive any extension services.
While learning and adoption impacts may be inconsistent or modest when delivering information via phone-based systems, they can often be designed and scaled cost-effectively.
ICTs can also be a cost-effective way to improve on traditional extension by tailoring recommendations to farmers’ needs at relevant times during the agricultural cycle.
Mobile phones, with their widespread usage in many low and middle income countries, can improve the effectiveness of extension programs by allowing organizations to deliver frequent reminders or tailored information to farmers at particular points during planting.
In another study in Kenya, contracted sugarcane farmers who received SMS reminders about agricultural tasks timed to coincide with relevant parts of the growing season experienced an 8 percent increase in yields relative to the comparison group.
The intervention was cost-effective, at US$0.02 per text message while raising farmer revenues by US$54.
Mobile phones are also often used as a medium for farmers to source price information for agricultural outputs.
Specifically, when farmers know about prevailing market prices (particularly for crops that have high price variability) or about buyers near them ready to trade, they would be able to take advantage of markets for their goods, negotiate better sale prices with traders, increase production, or reduce price dispersion across markets.
Farmers may benefit more when information helps them to overcome behavioural biases, like procrastination, or highlights important traits they previously ignored.
Extension may be effective when providing information on a profitable practice that overcomes a behavioral bias, such as limited attention, procrastination, or where learning through direct observation is difficult.
Simplistic tools such as “soil health cards” and “leaf color charts” helps farmers to improve their knowledge of effective fertilizer management through optimal quantity and application timing.
In some cases, policymakers can generate effective extension through targeted information that can help farmers notice new or neglected production techniques.
Policymakers should emphasise extension as an effective standalone tool for increasing profits when they identify profitable but unfamiliar technologies.
Involving women as recipients of information improves their knowledge and adoption of the recommended practices by 13 percentage points relative to when only male members of the household received information (an increase of about 267 percent).
Study also demonstrate that bundling agricultural advisory services with other offerings can improve outcomes given the multidimensional constraints that women small-scale farmers face.
Policymakers should intentionally include and target women through extension programs.
Innovative approaches, like video-based learning and bundling, can be effective in empowering women to become agricultural decision-makers.