At the request of the USAID/Zambia mission, the MEAS project (Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services – a USAID funded project) conducted a rapid scoping mission (RSM) to examine the pluralistic extension system in Eastern Province and to develop recommendations for strengthening extension and advisory services. The fieldwork for the assessment work was carried out during the time period July 28 to August 15, 2014, and included in-depth interviews with Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAL) staff at all levels, international and national non-governmental organization (NGO) directors and staff, lead farmers, university faculty, agricultural researchers, and private sector representatives. To the extent possible, interviews were carried out on the “shop floors” of the different respondents, allowing the MEAS team to visit farms, area and district extension and project offices, universities and training centers, and research facilities.
The primary objective of the RSM was to assess the pluralistic extension system in Eastern Province at district and provincial levels, including the relationships to the national level, in order to provide recommendations to both public and non-public actors, an institutional framework to guide the processes, and key areas for strengthening at local levels, highlighting processes to improve coordination, harmonization, planning and reporting between public and private extension delivery. The team focused on contributions and constraints of these different advisory service providers. The following recommendations include strategies for improving coordination across a diverse set of extension and advisory service (EAS) providers. The assessment team believes that MAL district and provincial level agriculture coordinators have an important role to play in the execution of these strategies. Ultimately, a coordinated, well-functioning system of EAS will require that the many and diverse organizations engaged in EAS at the local level engage in MAL-convened, district-level work planning, reporting and assessment – all with attention to development goals defined by local people.
The assessment concentrated on the five districts in Eastern Province that represent the Zambia FTF’s Zone of Influence. It is acknowledged that some of the key FTF implementation partners operate across all nine Eastern Province District. And, while the assessment focusses on Eastern Province, some of the results and recommendations should be applicable to the rest of the country.
It is clear that MAL and its partners have been thinking deeply about the potential benefits, as well as the challenges that accompany increased pluralism of EAS in Zambia. MAL has gone well beyond official acknowledgement or recognition of pluralism. It endorses and seeks to support pluralism, and planned (again, in concert with partners) and promoted institutional arrangements to foster better coordination. We believe that its current plan to focus coordination efforts at the District level (detailed in Annex C) is sensible. The following recommendations are intended to help mitigate potential coordination challenges, to build platforms for coordination that “double” as learning and innovation platforms, and to stimulate a Zambia-specific dialogue about what increasing pluralism means for public extension and policy maker’s role in creating an enabling environment over the long term.
Pluralism in EAS clearly offers a measure of choice to Zambian farmers. The entry of new EAS providers, is viewed as a positive development, as many of them are opening doors for smallholder participation in new markets, or helping farmers to find, test and adapt solutions to agronomic challenges. At the same time, it brings into focus important questions about the underlying purpose of EAS, and the extent to which agricultural development strategies favored by private EAS providers compete with or support broader rural poverty alleviation and food security goals.
Among the most troubling statistics related to rural Zambia are those related to poverty levels, food insecurity and stunting. Even if private agricultural EAS providers were present in every block or camp across Zambia (which, of course, they are not) hundreds of thousands of the most disadvantaged rural households are not well positioned for appreciable gains through some of the agricultural interventions being promoted. Disadvantages can relate to location (including poor market access), natural resource endowments, illiteracy, poor health, weak local organizations, and access to the basic resources for farm-based livelihoods. Who among the expanding set of EAS providers can sustain pro-poor rural development work – not as an alternative to, or in competition with the agricultural EAS services that help well-positioned smallholder farmers innovate, solve problems and participate in value chains – but as a complement to these emerging services? The question seems especially germane when one considers that non-public EAS providers decide themselves where and with whom they will work. Understandably, commercially-oriented value chains and businesses will make that choice based on prospects for return on investment. Rural development NGOs with a strong “pro-poor” agenda often choose to work with the most disadvantaged, but such NGOs are not present in every rural village or Camp, and their long term presence in a particular place may be determined more by funding and project cycles than by their organization’s mission and actual need among the poor they are trying to serve. This begs the question –“Can public extension – the only EAS provider with a long-term presence in every Camp in Zambia – reinvent itself for a broader rural development mandate?” It is assumed that most Camp Officers will continue to work closely with Camp Agriculture Committees, and to facilitate farmer learning and capacity strengthening in partnership with non-public EAS providers. But can they play a similar facilitation, capacity strengthening and coordination role when it comes to other critical rural development priorities? Does the arrival of alternative technical agriculture advisory services from the private sector afford public extension the “space” for this broader mandate?
Pluralism has the potential to greatly strengthen extension in some blocks and camps. Conversely, it could perhaps weaken it in others if used as a rationale for significant disinvestment in public extension. We would expect the biggest gains in non-public agricultural EAS to occur in areas best suited to commercialization and value chain development. In contrast, areas with the most limited resource endowments for commercial agricultural production that also lack NGO attention and farmer organizations may find MAL as the sole EAS option.
MAL also needs to acknowledge and respond to widely held perceptions that public extension is no longer relevant. The weakness of MAL extension was a recurring theme during our assessment, and we heard it from a wide range of organizations and individuals – including representatives of farmers’ membership organizations, NGOs, donor organizations, and private companies. The most charitable assessment of MAL extension pointed to its limited capacity for actual extension service delivery, but the still important role in helping to facilitate the work of other organizations at the Camp level. Others spoke of the importance of rebuilding public extension, but believed it unlikely given the cost and extend of their problems. The least charitable views portrayed public extension as “dead”, or an irrelevant vestige of the past, already supplanted by the private sector and membership organizations.
We believe that the latter view grossly understates MAL’s potential contributions to Zambia’s increasingly pluralistic EAS. But it is clear that MAL will be hard pressed to reclaim its reputation as a viable player in extension and advisory services unless it finds a way to exercise leadership in the coordination of services at District and local levels, and in the convening of platforms for learning and innovation that bring widely recognized value to non-public EAS providers and to rural communities. Donors, as well as the Zambian government, will have to realistically examine the ability of the private for profit sector to adequately reach marginalized farmers, and the long term sustainability of NGO driven services to the poor.
Initiate a full study of the feasibility and consequences of reorienting MALs role at the local level. This should examine in detail an alternative role for Camp Extension Officers – a role less focused on technology-oriented content delivery and more about facilitating learning, helping to organize and strengthen local groups’ capacity for decision-making and for addressing a wider range of community concerns, and for serving as a “connector” between farmers and a wide range of EAS providers. Ideally, this study would be conducted by MAL staff itself, rather than relying on outside experts.
Equip District-level MAL personnel with high level networking, communications, team-building and facilitation skills necessary to be proactive conveners of organizations engaged in agricultural and rural development.
Lead the establishment of practitioner “learning networks” at the District-level. Embrace the potential of pluralism for enriching catalyzing collaboration and innovation in EAS and rural development practice. If organized in a way that conveys a sense of shared ownership and that leads to participant-valued learning, these can be powerful, self-sustaining, long-term communities of practice.
The Government needs to find a way to fully fund reasonable operational expenses at Camp level – lack of mobility is currently a very significant issue. Given limited funding, priorities will have to be set in terms of which regions and/or which segments of the farming population to focus on, taking into account where other providers may be sufficiently engaged so that the public sector can reduce its presence.
MAL is encouraged to move aggressively toward the incorporation of information and communications technology (ICT) into extension practice. Besides training and equipping Camp, Block and District-level personnel, it is recommended that MAL pilot innovative applications proving valuable among EAS providers elsewhere. Examples include farmer to farmer video (done, e.g., in the form that Digital Green does), digital information resources, and applications for recordkeeping, reporting, and other program management tasks.
Consider the creation of a small number of high quality national or provincial specialist teams. Deploy when and where farmer demand for particular advisory services cannot be met through existing public or private EAS resources. Such teams can also be important resources for in-service training of Camp Officers and other EAS providers. Mobility, flexibility and responsiveness are critical to their effectiveness.
Give smallholder farmers a greater voice in the prioritization of publicly-funded agricultural research. Consider channeling a portion of public research funding through a semi-autonomous, farmer-led research body where smallholder farmers sit on the Board of Directors and on panels to consider applied research proposals and dissemination strategies for research findings. ZNFU is in a good position to convene and support such a body. Emphasis should be on the research priorities of ZNFU’s smallholder members, however.
Deploy public extension resources for advancing the broader rural development agenda (beyond agricultural development) of Zambia. While acknowledging that small holder agriculture is an important driver of rural economic growth, broad-based improvements in health, nutrition, education and the status of girls and women, as well as expansion of non-farm livelihood options, could benefit significantly from a form of rural extension and adult education that more directly targets factors – beyond technology access – that perpetuate poverty.
Pursue greater integration of the goals and strategies reflected in the National Agriculture Investment Plan and the National Food and Nutrition Strategic Plan – Consider how Zambia’s increasingly pluralistic EAS system can best advance a comprehensive, more fully integrated national food and agriculture strategy.
A Learning Agenda
Seek to influence the curricula at the Colleges of Agriculture that supply MAL and other EAS providers with field personnel. Assist them in developing experiential learning opportunities relevant to contemporary, pluralistic EAS systems and to the new roles/functions of public and private extension practitioners and advisory service providers.
Develop an aggressive in-service training program for District, Block and Camp-level extension staff that will strengthen the attitudes, knowledge and skills needed for MAL’s new role in a pluralistic EAS system Skills include: creating high performing teams; working in teams; community organizing; participatory learning and action; facilitation; adapting extension approaches to more fully address various forms of marginalization (including those based on gender and socio-economic status); accessing expertise and other resources across sectors, including those related to health and nutrition.
Bring EAS providers together to review and refine the process for preparing and aggregating their respective contributions to District work plans and performance reports. Also, provide training and other support to EAS providers to enhance prospects that common M and E and reporting frameworks are embraced and contribute to sound decision making.
Establish and communicate clear meanings for the words and concepts being used in the conversation about coordination of pluralism. A common understanding among potential partners of meanings behind words like “coordination” and “harmonization” is important. Make a clear distinction between concepts that imply standardization (something that can narrow options presented to farmers) and concepts that imply communication and coordination while maintaining scope for multiple approaches (and farmer options).
Support the DACO and his/her team with advanced training in collaborative program planning, evaluation and the aggregation and analysis of reports from multiple EAS partners in ways that prove useful.
Action research and learning about coordination/harmonization – MAL‘s plan/ interest to coordinate pluralistic EAS through District-level platforms across Zambia offers a rich opportunity for learning. Even more attractive are the opportunities to learn from efforts, including unsuccessful efforts, to elevate these coordination committees become the more powerful and potentially impactful learning and innovation platforms. National MAL can play an important role in establishing a flexible action research agenda to support, document and learn from the process.
Experiment with participatory approaches and funding mechanisms that give farmers a more prominent role in the innovation process. One such approach – Farmer Learning Centers – brings small groups of the most innovative farmers together to strengthen their capacity for innovation, then builds “support links” to research and commercial actors. Examples of this approach exist in Malawi and Zimbabwe where they are organizationally embedded within universities, though in partnership with public extension.
Enhanced Private Sector and Civil Society Involvement
Create “demand” on the part of EAS providers for the benefits of collaboration and work plan coordination. Busy NGOs, private businesses and farmers’ organizations, each with their own goals to achieve, and their own resources, will quickly find better things to do with their time than to attend MAL-convened coordination meetings if they perceive no benefit from doing so. Each District will need to determine what will motivate them to support coordination and harmonization efforts voluntarily. Benefits could include opportunities for learning (training as well as membership in “communities of practice”), continued access to the services of Camp Officers in supporting field-level activities, or the opportunity to gain greater visibility and recognition for their organization’s work. One could imagine provinces competing with one another for National recognition of their creative agricultural and rural development partnerships.
Seek broad consensus across EAS organizations on shared, high priority objectives. Collaboration is possible despite differences in mandates, development philosophies and approaches if potential collaborators organize the interactions around important shared goals. Barriers to collaboration based on differences tend to lessen as personal relationships, trust and mutual respect become stronger.
Develop performance enhancement programs for agri-input dealers. As a group, agri-input dealers are underprepared for their role as de facto agricultural advisors. It is recommended that MAL explore the possibility of partnering with business, trade associations, or IFDC to develop and implement a program to upgrade the technical agricultural knowledge and practical business skills of agri-input dealers across Zambia, coordinating with the current SNV program where appropriate.
Create and monitor adherence to high standards of professionalism and performance of private EAS providers. Pluralism increases the need for professional standards. Standards serve not simply as evidence that an extension or advisory service practitioner possesses appropriate technical skills, but also that s/he has committed to upholding ethical standards. It is understood that the work of EAS providers who work for private companies is guided by commercial goals, but professional integrity demands that EAS providers not knowingly recommend products or practices that run counter to farmers’ best interest. There exist many organizations that certify farm advisors around the world which could inform a Zambian certification program. They typically offer extensive in-service training opportunities (required for periodic recertification) and demand adherence to a strict code of professional ethics.
 Participatory research concepts are not new to MAL and ZARI. More than thirty years ago, the Adaptive Research Planning Teams (ARPT) sought to work more closely with farmers in on-farm adaptive research. While ARPT led to an increased recognition of how farmer participation can improve the relevance of research, numerous further enhancements to participatory research have emerged in the intervening years. The review team advocates contemporary approaches that support a more prominent and meaningful role for farmers in the innovation process.