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How Digital Extension Service Technologies Can Improve the Productivity of Smallholder Farmers

by Agritech Digest
How Digital Extension Service Technologies Can Improve the Productivity of Smallholder Farmers - Agritech Digest

Digital Extension Services have the potential to revolutionise farming practices and increase productivity. They utilise technology and digital platforms to provide remote assistance, information, resources and support, while overcoming the challenges faced by the traditional extension methods, especially in the rural producing areas.

By Oyewole Okewole

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), an agricultural extension service offers technical advice on building Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to farmers. This includes the transfer of knowledge on farm technologies, supply of inputs and services to farmers for support and assistance, support of rural adult learning, assisting farmers in developing technical and managerial skills, and many others. The extension service further provides information to farmers while utilising various mediums to disseminate new and updated practices, methods, and ideas developed by researchers and scientists through research stations. Extension provisions extend their impact on the development of farmers’ groups, for access to incentives and other collective benefits. 

Traditional extension functions have experienced considerable gaps in accessing smallholder farmers. It has failed to provide up-to-date information and practices. These breaches have inevitably affected farmers’ productivity over the years, especially as experienced in low-income countries. In most cases, farmers are left to operate with poor, outdated processes, methods, and inputs. This is largely because these farmers are clearly oblivious to these innovations rather than unwilling to embrace novel possibilities. Farmers are simply left alone to practice the usual old and sometimes low-productive practices.

The associated costs of operating the traditional extension methods including in-person meetings, on-farm demonstrations, printed publications, and radio programming are increasingly becoming unsustainable and not as trendy as before. They can be costlier to scale, and not amenable to specific, unique on-field challenges. The ratio of farmers to extension agents is very high. leaving most smallholder farmers stranded, without access to the required information and services. Costs-related considerations also affect the frequent updates of dynamic conditions which speedily make agricultural information obsolete. These challenges have made traditional extension services weaker and unproductive.

Digital Extension Services

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Digital Extension Services have the potential to revolutionise farming practices and increase productivity. They utilise technology and digital platforms to provide remote assistance, information, resources and support, while overcoming the challenges faced by the traditional extension methods, especially in the rural producing areas. The emergence and proliferation of mobile phones and devices have enhanced digital technologies in their applications for extension and advisory services and consequently reshaped the landscape of agricultural extension services. 

Digital Extension Services have the ability to reach a large number of farmers at a lower cost compared to traditional extension methods. Information can be transferred through mobile phones, mobile applications, websites, and many other digital platforms. These platforms give farmers the privilege to access real-time assistance and support on crop management, market process, market linkages, weather forecasts, pest control, and general good agricultural practices. Furthermore, Digital Extension Services have been proven to provide specific personalised advice that is channelled to specific crops, locations, and needs. It helps to address specific issues faced by farmers, leading to increased productivity, reduction in input costs, enhanced production efficiency, and general improvement in overall farm management. Digital extension technologies can facilitate and establish market linkages between farmers and buyers through digital platforms. It helps to reduce unnecessary middlemen, help farmers secure the best prices for their produce, and promote market expansion possibilities for the farmers. Digital Extension tools are essentially used for agricultural knowledge transfer that further strengthens and enables global food security. 

In an article titled ‘How have smallholder farmers used digital extension tools? Developer and user voices from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia’, the Digital Extension Tools user journey that constrains its realisation, especially in low- and middle-income countries was graphically highlighted. 
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Some of the digital extension tools include:

1. The use of mobile devices, which has become an integral part of the digital extension service drive. Mobile phones with calls and messages features are the most common handheld devices being used and operated by smallholder farmers. Text messages, for example, are one of the digital extension methods to reach a substantial number of farmers at the same time. This method considerably closes the information gaps experienced.

2. Interactive Voice Responses, which entails the interaction of computers with humans through voice methodology. The technology simply enables farmers to listen to information, usually prerecorded, and also to record new challenges.

3. The use of tablets and smartphones provides a more robust digital extension service. The operations and applications of smartphones extend comprehensively into watching and taking pictures to online interactions with specialists. In addition, many software applications like WhatsApp groups and specialised applications like CABI PlantwisePlus agricultural mobile app, Pest Diagnostic Simulator, Crop management Simulator, Crop Sprayer, Fertiliser Optimiser, and many others, can be downloaded on their device to address specific issues while enhancing their productivity.

Digital Extension Service also has the potential to promote local language support that helps farmers from different backgrounds benefit from the information provided. Through its ability to promote language and regional adaptation digital extension services can empower far more farmers with insights.

(Read also: Decentralised Cold Storage Technology and Its Prospects for Reducing Post-Harvest Losses (PHL) in Fruits and Vegetables in Africa)

Influence of Digital Extension Services on Smallholder Farmers 

It is important to note that smallholder farmers play significant roles in on-farm productivity globally. They generally produce about one-third of the world’s food while most (84%) of the world’s 570 million farms remain smallholdings. It is therefore vital to exercise strategic steps to integrate agricultural extension and advisory services through digital methods to the farmers. Often, smallholder farmers are largely semi-illiterate or illiterate and are limited by infrastructural deficits among other challenges. Building the required connection and increased adoption of digital extension services should embrace comprehensive, systemic methods that involve the government, extension agencies, private sectors, farmers, and other stakeholders. For example, key findings from ICTforAg services in their survey on the use of mobile phone services by smallholder farmers in Kenya show that farmers are using mobile phones but their adoption of extension services is low. Digital divides exist in wealth, gender, and education, with women lagging slightly behind men in smartphone ownership. It was also discovered that farmer groups promise more influence on farmers to adopt digital extension services.

In light of this, FAO in one of their articles, made the following under-listed recommendations for increased adoption of digital extension and advisory services.

1. Empowerment of smallholder farmers to access digital agricultural extension and advisory services through enabling policies and institutional support.

2. Empowerment of smallholder farmers to access digital agricultural extension and advisory services through farmer education on digital literacy.

3. Empowerment of smallholder farmers to access digital agricultural extension and advisory services through coordinated joint actions.

In Conclusion, smallholder farmers heavily rely on guidance and support that comes from extension services. To increase their productivity, it is expected that they increasingly maximise the benefits of digital extension services. The required support and infrastructure needed to promote digital extension services, especially in low and middle-income countries are most desired for its sustainability. 

Oyewole Okewole. 

Agricultural Project Development Specialist

Cover Photo by Sandy Zebua on Unsplash

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