Report on the Status of ICT for Agricultural Extension in Bangladesh
Following a MEAS sponsored ICT Workshop in Dhaka, on December 3, 2012
(available for download at the bottom of this page or access online by clicking here)
The purpose of this Scoping Mission was to assess the major extension/advisory service providers within Bangladesh to 1) identify the respective strategies and major gaps within and between these different advisory service providers, including their institutional capacity, human and financial resources, as well as other key factors, especially in reaching the rural poor; and then to 2) suggest some near- and/or long-term strategies and investments that could strengthen and improve the effectiveness, integration and sustainability of these different extension and advisory service providers within Bangladesh.
The overall goal will be to determine how additional funding could help Bangladesh both maintain its national food and nutritional security, while also increasing the incomes and improving livelihoods of small and marginal farm/rural households. Particular attention was given to how the public, private and/or civil society organizations (NGOs) are helping increase the household income of small and marginal farmers, especially poor rural women. In addition, the major research institutions in Bangladesh were visited to get their assessment about the current strength of research-extension (R-E) linkages and whether and how these linkages might be strengthened.
The following is a summary of the major gaps or weaknesses that were identified during this scoping mission of Bangladesh’s pluralistic extension system:
1. Very limited relationship between the Dept. of Agricultural Extension (DAE = crops), the Department of Livestock Services (DLS) and the Department of Fisheries (DOF), as well with the other NGO service providers within specific project Districts and/or Upazilas.
2. Also, very limited Research-Extension Linkages, since the DAE is a strongly top-down extension system (also DLS & DOF) and it was reported that the DAE does not maintain regular contact with the different research institutions.
3. Very limited resources (i.e., no transport, communications, office, or program funds) especially for the field extension staff at the Union and Block levels. This lack of resources severely limits the capacity and performance of these field extension workers. There are about 12,600 Sub-Assistant Agricultural Officers (SAAOs), but about the only resources they have and receive are their monthly salaries. Depending on the Upazila, about 15% have motorcycles, but most have to walk or take public transportation.
4. Current ICT Capacity should be strengthened to link farmers to needed technical and market information.
a. Agricultural Information Service (AIS) is making good progress in making technical and market information available on line for all crops, livestock and fisheries; however, very few people, especially farmers and the field extension staff (SAAOs) can access this web-based information. Also, the current on-line information covers all crops, livestock and fisheries management practices but this information, especially for crops, needs to be made more location specific, based on local agro-ecological growing conditions. However, if the AIS could be upgraded, using new ICT capabilities, then this more location specific technical information could easily be made available across different agro-ecological zones of Bangladesh.b. Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM). DAM is generating market information on a weekly basis and some data is now available twice per week. This market information is also rapidly available through AIS’s online service; the DAM system should be enhanced so they can disseminate daily market information across all major markets within Bangladesh.c. Call Centers are being created by both research and most extension departments (DAE, DLS, and DOF), as well as through the AIS at the national level. Since medium and larger scale farmers are using mobile phones on a daily basis to get more location specific input supply and market information (primarily from private sector firms), these call centers probably need to be decentralized to the major agro-ecological zones within Bangladesh (e.g. to subject matter specialists (SMSs) at the district level and/or to the BARI stations in each of the 22 major agro-ecological regions, so this technical advisory information can be communicated directly to SAAOs and/or farmers and made more location specific to local needs.d. Mobile phones. Most small and medium “progressive” farmers routinely use mobile phones to speak with input supply dealers and wholesale markets. Some of the larger commercial farmers are now using “smart phones” and can access the AIS web site. The SAAOs have their own personal mobile phones, but most are conventional mobile phones that are limited to voice and SMS texting capabilities. The SAAO’s seldom use their mobile phones for work except to respond to incoming farmer questions (since incoming calls are free). If the SAAOs had the appropriate type of “smart phones” along with funding for appropriate online charges, then they could quickly access and download rapidly expanding sources of both technical and market information. In addition, they could easily share this needed information directly with small-scale, marginal men and women farmers. With the appropriate ICT resource, they could bypass the DAE “top-down” DAE management structure and begin serving small and marginal farmers across their block with up-to-date technical and market information.
There is general agreement within the DAE that small-scale and marginal farmers should be organized into community, farmer and/or producer groups (within and between local communities). The purpose of these groups is to help different groups of farmers to refocus on intensifying and diversifying their respective farming systems by producing more high-value crops, livestock and fish products to increase farm income. In addition, if these groups can work together both for input supply and marketing purposes, they can also reduce the cost of these inputs, as well as to linking these producer groups to wholesale markets, so they will not be exploited by local “traders.” It should be noted that different approaches are being implemented across the different donor sponsored projects. For example:
1. Common Interest Groups (CIGs organized under the NATP) appear to be those farmers most closely connected with the extension staff at the Union and Upazila levels.
2. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Integrated Crop Management (ICM) Clubs being organized under DANIDA projects (generally 50% men and 50% women)
3. Village Groups being organized by BRAC have monthly meetings to discuss and solve immediate technical, management or marketing problems
4. Other donor projects (e.g. NCDP by ADB, as well as several USAID funded projects) seem to be focusing on organizing producer groups that are more specifically focused on particular crop, livestock or fish systems (e.g. horticulture groups, prawn groups, etc.)
There is broad agreement of the need to organize farmer or producer groups and that these groups are essential in successfully linking farmers to markets and in reducing the risk of poor farmers being exploited by local traders. Groups are being organized by different donors and NGOs, but most are using somewhat different methods of organizing these groups. There was inadequate time during this scoping mission to see these groups directly, but the BRAC approach seem the most logical and best approach, but again with some limitations.
It would appear that the CIG approach being used under NATP would not be recommended, since the primary purpose seemed to be in delivering about 9 training sessions/year to these CIGs at the Upazila level (primary on specific crop, livestock and/or fishery production practices). However, it did not appear to be the farmers themselves who were identifying what courses should be taught, nor was there much focus on organizing producer groups that could build value-chains to different markets for specific products. In short, the CIG training approach appeared to be largely top-down (courses were determined senior extension staff at the Upazila level or higher. Also, these CIGs may not be sustainable, since the focus seemed to be more on the fact that both the trainees and trainers getting paid to teach and attend these courses. In short, it could be that the senior DAE officials, who are being paid to conduct these training sessions, are also deciding which courses are offered, not what different farmer groups need/want in terms of producing new high-value crop, livestock of fish products, as well as getting organized into producer groups so they can link more effectively to accessible urban markets.
a. Input Supply Dealers (seed, fertilizer and pesticides) are the primary source of “input related” advisory services for most medium and larger farmers. Farmers routinely call their input suppliers to get their recommendations on what inputs to use and how to solve specific technical problems. The provision of these advisory services, by these input supply dealers, will continue to increase as the production and demand for both staple and high-value food products increases. It should be noted that this technology transfer function, within pluralistic extension/advisory services, routinely shifts to the private sector (input supply dealers) as medium and larger farmers increase their productivity and marketing, as is clearly happening in Bangladesh. However, these private sector firms will have little or no impact on the small and marginal farmers, especially rural women.
b. Wholesale Market Dealers—if farmers are organized into groups, to market their outputs, then this shortens the value chain and farmers receive higher prices. These cooperatives or producer groups for different high-value crop (e.g., fruits and vegetables), livestock and fish products are emerging. They are being established especially near Dhaka and other major cities, and specifically for high-value crop and fishery products (e.g., prawns) destined for major urban markets and for export.
c. Local Traders—in most countries, including Bangladesh, these middlemen take advantage of the rural poor by offering minimal prices on farm gate products. This is difficult to change until small farmers, including women, get organized.
a. BRAC is the largest and appear to be the most effective NGO in Bangladesh, since it not only provides advisory services, but also micro-credit and help farmers build value chains for specific crops, livestock and/or fishery products. However, in the near future, BRAC is only expected to serve about 0.5 million farmers, while there are over 7 million (landless) farmers who are renting land.
b. CARE International—the leadership of the current CARE project indicated that their earlier project was not very successful, but they think their new SHOUHARDO II project is now working effectively and having an impact on the rural poor. They work through local NGOs and together they have considerable field and support staff. In particular, they have far more program and operational resources than found in the DAE at the Upazila and Union levels, as well as the other public extension institutions.
c. World Vision (WV) is starting to refocus their efforts on value chains, but they have just started this new initiate upon the recent arrival of their new director.
d. Winrock International (WI)—Primarily working through local NGOs in providing advisory services to both horticulture and fish farmers; again, the WI focus appeared to be more on the medium-scale, more progressive farmers and getting them linked to both domestic and export markets.
Several donors, including the World Bank and DANIDA, are recruiting progressive farmers through their different projects, who then get minimal resources (e.g. 600-16,500/month, plus a bicycle) for providing advisory services to other farmers within their respective villages or block). Some of these “voluntary farmer advisors” are:
a. Fisheries Extension Advisory Farmers (FEAFs)
b. Livestock Extension Advisory Farmers (LEAFs)
c. Community Extension Agents for Livestock (CEAL)
d. Community Extension Agents for Fisheries (CEAFs)
It wasn’t clear how effective these voluntary farmers are in providing advice to other farmers in their village or block. It appears that some of these voluntary farmer advisors are effective and do help other farmers, while others primarily want the money and talk with their nearby neighbors and friends.
1. Lack of Farmer Advisory or Steering Committees among the Public Extension Departments, especially the Department of Agricultural Extension. To transform a public extension system from being too top-down and becoming more “farmer-driven,” then representative Advisory and/or Steering Committees must be created, especially at the Union and Upazila levels, and, if possible, at the District level. The reason why public extension systems fail to serve the needs and interests of all types of farm households within their service area is that they fail to listen to what farmers see as their opportunities and extension priorities. Also, these Advisory and/or Steering Committees must represent all major types of farmers (men and women) and size of farm households (landless, marginal, small, medium and large) within their respective service area. For example, the head of all community, farmer or producer groups within each block should become members of these Committees and then the head of the Union level Advisory Committee should serve on the Upazila level Steering or Advisory Committee. These committees are critical in making public extension more farmer-led and market driven.
2. Developing Value Chains. Medium and larger farmers in some areas of Bangladesh are now shifting to more high-value crops/products and, thereby, diversifying their farming systems. These more progressive farmers are becoming more effective in seeking out better markets and prices, as well as getting organized into commodity or producer groups, since they can then negotiate higher prices from wholesale buyers, rather than being exploited by traders. However, in addition to medium and larger farmers getting organized and linked to markets, small-scale farm households also need to get organized and get linked to local and nearby markets.
3. Access to Credit. Commercial farmers increasingly need access to credit as they intensify their farming systems. The Government is strongly encouraging banks to offer credit to these small and medium scale farmers. However, landless farmers and rural poor, including rural women, have very limited access to credit, except through NGOs like BRAC.
4. Farm Household Decision Makers. For small, medium and larger scale progressive farmers, who are marketing their products, it is primarily the men within each household who are making most farm management decisions. However, for the very small and marginal farm households (<0.2 acres), it is primarily the women who are making most farm management decisions, in terms of backyard gardening (fruits and vegetables), livestock (poultry and goats) and fish ponds. The reason for this difference in making farm management decision is that the men in these very small households are pursuing off-farm jobs or working for nearby, larger commercial farmers.
It appears that most SAAOs are willing to provide farmers with assistance on different crop, livestock and fishery technologies (as well as emerging farming systems), but they have not been trained, nor do they have the authority to take on these additional advisory assignments (e.g. livestock and fisheries). However, with some encouragement and resources being allocated to the DAE at the field level, it should be possible to expand and improve the advisory services being provided by these SAAOs, especially from a farming systems perspective. However, here are some serious problems and issues to be sorted out. For example:
1. Conduct In-Service Training for SAAOs. Nearly all SAAOs have diplomas from one of the 11 ATIs, but have received little or no training since graduation, except thru other donor sponsored projects. Therefore, in-service training (as well as pre-service training for new SAAOs) on: 1) current crop, livestock and fishery systems, 2) how to organize farmer/producer groups, and 3) helping build value chains (by training and linking these different farmer/producer groups to markets) are some of the skills and knowledge urgently needed by current SAAOs. Once these training courses are finished, then the SAAOs will be expected to begin organizing producers groups (generally organized by different categories of farmers), especially marginal women farmers (e.g., improving backyard gardening, as well as poultry and goats), as well as intensifying and diversifying the farms of these small-scale farmers, especially those with less than 0.5 acres.
2. Strengthening the capacity of the ATCs at each Upazila. Since the NATP project is already supplying one computer for each Upazila extension office, with wide-band Internet access they could use appropriate audio/video e-conferencing software to conduct training sessions via the internet for SAAOs as well as the CIGs and other producer groups. These live training sessions could also be captured using appropriate software at the presenter level so that they could also be used, asynchronously, in training current and future extension staff, including training them how to use the AIS resource portal to train different groups of farmers within their representative blocks and villages. Of course, some training might also be needed by key AIS staff, so they can learn the best practices for accomplishing these objectives. The end-goal should be for these end products to be made available to public, private and NGO extension workers in a platform-agnostic manner so that they could be used on not only desktop and laptop computers, but also on smart phones and “learning tablets,” such an iPad or Android-based tablet.
3. Provide Resources for SAAOs. In addition to their inadequate (or out-of-date) training, another primary reason why these SAAOs don’t have much impact on farm households is that they have no transportation, resources to conduct extension programs, as well as needed communication equipment. As a result, they are not up-to-date on changing crop, livestock and fishery management practices, as well as helping link producer groups to accessible markets. All SAAOs have their own personal mobile phones, but most are not “smart” phones and they are unwilling to use their personal mobile phone extensively, given that they must pay these costs themselves. In short, unless they have smart phones along with some level of government funding support for mobile phone usage, they will have 1) no access to available AIS information, 2) limited access and/or willingness to communicate with SMSs and/or researchers about helping farmers solve specific technical, management or marketing problems. In addition, given the current on-line availability of both technical and marketing information through AIS, field extension workers could easily access this information if they had smart phones and other needed resources. While the cost of equipping 12,600 SAAO’s with smart-phones (as well as covering their month usage costs) is not trivial, these investment costs would greatly and immediately enhance the capacity and impact of these field extension workers. In short, they would be both empowered and unleashed by using these new tools to provide needed technical and market information, especially for the rural poor.
4. Updating the AIS Capacity and Information. As noted earlier, the government is already putting considerable emphasis on the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), especially through the Agricultural Information Service (AIS) department (see: http://www.ais.gov.bd/en/.html) and the Department of Agricultural Marketing (DAM; see:http://www.dam.gov.bd/jsp/index.jsp). These emerging resources would be very valuable and useful to both the field extension workers (SAAOs) and farmers if they have access to this information via the AIS web site. The current problem is lack of internet access by both SAASs and farmers, since few if any have a smart-phone by which they could gain immediate access to these important and rapidly growing sources of needed information. This problem could be addressed through specific ICT investments by providing “smart-phones” to the SAAOs (or possibly even iPads or Android-based learning tablets), as well as similar tools to extension personnel at both the Upazila and District level (including crops, livestock and fishery extension specialists).
In short, the growing ICT capacity within Bangladesh (e.g. moving from 1G to 3G within 12 months) is rapidly increasing the availability of up-to-date technical and market information about different crops, livestock and fisheries systems. These developments will make it possible for all extension workers, especially those at the Block/Union level to gain immediate access to this needed information, so they can then quickly pass along this information to different groups of men and women farmers within their respective Blocks. To fail to make these necessary investments and, thereby, fail to link these field extension workers to these rapidly changing new sources of information, would undermine previous investments in creating this current AIS website and which now needs to be further up-dated and expanded.
If this course of action were to be adopted, however, one important change would have to be made to the way that multimedia assets are encoded and delivered from the current AIS website. Although the current technologies will support most desktop and laptop computers, the same cannot be said for all smart phones. Reliance on any one platform specific toolset (such as WMV or Flash or QuickTime) will limit the accessibility to those multimedia assets unnecessarily. Fortunately, some of our MEAS partners have technical expertise in how to avoid such problems and make online resources more fully accessible to all end users.
5. Expand the role of SAAOs and Upazila level extension staff by allowing them to create up-to-date information (e.g. success stories on the production practices being successfully used by progressive farmers), using their new smart phone devices. Equipped with a smart-phone and working directly with the farmers themselves, the SAAO’s and/or the Upazila level extension workers, would be in a perfect position to use the recording capabilities of these new smart-phones (video, audio, and still photos) to record the management practices or techniques used by innovative farmers in their service area. Video recordings of progressive farmers have the capacity to communicate convincing messages to other farmers, particularly those who are not literate. For example, these field-based recordings could be edited and uploaded by these SAAOs directly from their smart phones to “cloud-based” sites using social media membership for sharing information with other members within a defined community. The storage of these videos themselves could possibly use a “free” resource such as YouTube or Vimeo. These educational resources could then be accessed in a variety of ways by other SAAO’s when they want to show different farmer groups about how other progressive farmers have successfully adopted a given practice or solved a particular problem.
6. Pilot test the effectiveness of new presentation technologies at the Union, Block and/or Village levels. Most farmers prefer to attend meetings and/or training sessions at the Union, Block or village level. However, DAE does not have any training resources at the Union level. Under NATP, Farmer Information and Advisory Centers (FIACs) are being created in the participating Unions, but these consist of two small offices, plus desks, chairs, a file cabinet and not much else. There are large meeting halls in each Union government office that could be used for training or “informing” interested farmers about specific management practices, but making these presentations would require a TV with either a laptop computer with Internet access or a smart-phone that could quickly download the needed videos or other technical, management or market information. Some of the other options would include equipping SAAO’s with iPads that could easily and quickly retrieve and display multimedia teaching resources (either from over the cellular network or from flash-based storage), as well as doing the same thing at the village level with smart-phones using a pico projector (cost approximately $300) that could be used, for example, in teaching illiterate women farmers at the village level.
However, developing this ICT capacity at the Union level reportedly faces many problems, which must be carefully examined and considered before pursuing this option. For example, the availability of electricity in rural areas, especially during the summer period is very limited (e.g., a maximum of 12 hours/day, generally at night). Also, it was reported that unexpected power surges that would permanently damage this equipment are a major problem. Among the range of possible solutions would be (1) to routinely include a surge protector with each purchased electrical device, or (2) purchase and install a solar energy panel or a small generator to maintain this equipment, especially during working hours.
In addition, it was reported that senior officials in some Unions might unofficially borrow laptops or other equipment on a “long-term” basis. Therefore, it may not be possible to enhance the training capacity, using on-line videos, at the Union level. It should be noted that NATP did provide one desk-top computer at the Upazila level (located in the Director’s office), but this computer did not have internet access, except by using telephone land lines, which are very slow and not useful in gaining internet access to AIS and other sources of information. However, by merely providing this computer with wide band computer access and using this computer with a larger TV or LCD projector would make it possible to conduct training sessions, especially for the SAAOs within the ATCs.
7. Transportation Option. Since there are about 2,500-3,000 farm households in each block, most farmers never see or meet the one SAAO responsible for their area, given that the SAAO do not have a motorcycle or even bicycle. Therefore, one option would be to set up a revolving fund, whereby the SAAOs could buy a personal motorcycle on loan, which would then be repaid over the next 4-5 years. In this way, as new SAAOs are hired in future years, they could also take out a loan for their new motorcycle, as the earlier loans are being repaid. In short, it is not recommended to give extension workers (at any level) a government motorcycle, since they will not be maintained and these motorcycles will stop working within 2-3 years. However, if these personal motorcycles are purchased by and belong to these SAAOs, then they will maintain these motorcycles as these loans are repaid through payroll deductions from their regular salaries.
While all of this on-line information and data is in the form of general recommendations, more regional, agro-ecological and market specific information is needed. Therefore, the capacity of AIS needs to be expanded so that it includes more location specific technical and marketing information. For example, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) has 22 Technology Villages in the different agro-ecological areas in Bangladesh where they conduct on-farm trials and can make much more accurate recommendations to farmers. However, the Director General of BARI indicated that they have no way to disseminate this information and recommendations (such as new varieties, etc.) to farmers. However, with additional resources, the AIS could begin making this more location specific technical and marketing information more easily available to both farmers and the front-line extension staff across Bangladesh. Given that the Prime Minister wants Bangladesh to further enhance its digital capacity, to have greater impact on the rural poor, then these types of investments would be warmly received and could more quickly scale up the quality and range of extension and advisory services for all types of small and marginal farmers, including rural women.
(available in the full report)