KAKAMEGA/KENYA, 20 January 2017
Agriculture is the most important sector of African economies, from the livelihoods it supports to the future jobs it can generate.
The basic recipe for boosting performance is well known: more investment, better access to financial services, improved seeds, and a lot more fertiliser (appropriately applied).
What is less appreciated is the key role played by agricultural extension workers. They link small-scale farmers to new research, helping to improve their knowledge and skills so they can take advantage of market opportunities. In African countries prone to climate shocks, these extension workers have an increasingly important role to play if farmers are to learn to adapt and build their resilience.
There’s just one big problem: governments have tended to ignore extension work.
“The extension service provider’s role is enormous and urgent, especially as [the unpredictability of] climate change has brought a new dimension to agricultural research and development,” Max Olupot, of the African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services, told IRIN.
In addition, Qureish Noordin, from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), warned that climate variability is distorting “a huge portion of indigenous knowledge”, making the design of “realistic and practical adaptation programmes” even harder.
African agriculture, in general, is massively underfunded. In 2003, African governments agreed to the Maputo Declaration, committing 10 percent of spending to agriculture. But only 13 countries have ever managed to reach that target in any one year.
Two decades of IMF programming had pushed governments to cut spending, diminishing the reach and quality of the assistance provided to small-scale producers.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization recommends there should be one extension worker for every 400 farmers. In the rich world, the ratio is roughly one to 200, but in Africa it’s closer to one to 3,000, according to Noordin.
The Kenyan example
Kenya has the largest, most diversified economy in East Africa, and farming is its market-driven mainstay. In 2010, it adopted a new constitution supposed to devolve significant powers to county governments.
But in reality, agricultural policy is still set at the national level and there is a complicated relationship with the counties over responsibilities for the day-to-day running and financing of services and programmes.
Kakamega is a lush county in western Kenya, a seven-hour drive from Nairobi. More than 80 percent of its population is directly employed in the agricultural sector.
The Kenyan government should be stepping up its help for farmers here, but since devolution there’s been a drop in the number of extension workers employed.
Currently, the ratio is roughly one to 3,000-5,000 farmers, according to Johnston Imbira, the county’s director of agriculture.
“The number has decreased due to officers retiring and exiting from the service since devolution,” Imbira told IRIN. “
There are no deliberate efforts to support day-to-day extension delivery as it does not appeal to the county legislators compared to roads, which are visible to the electorate [and are a vote-winner].”
The county spends less than 4 percent on agriculture annually, despite the government’s 10 percent target.