Privatizing extension systems can catalyze and sustain the momentum of food system transformation in Africa.

By Japhet Laizer

Agriculture in Africa has the potential to satisfy not only its own domestic food but also those of the rest of the world. Agriculture remains one of the driving engine sectors for the continent, empowering most of the population and accounting for 14% of GDP in sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculture is becoming more integrated in the agri-food chain and the global market however, it is faced with a number of challenges to meet the growing demands for food with a fast-growing population, competitiveness in the global markets and quality of agricultural products to compete in overseas markets.
Agricultural extension is a vehicle for modernizing, commercializing, and transforming agriculture in many sub-Saharan African countries. Extension services targeting smallholder farmers have increased in recent years, but there are gaps in many African countries. Extension systems and service provision face several challenges including few number of extension officers; limited resources and awareness among smallholder farmers accessing the services hence affecting sector development and smallholder farmers economically and socially.

Again, the system has been leaving women and youth behind on access to extension services. Most African countries experience significant problems with the availability and dissemination of agricultural advisory services to the majority of smallholder farmers. In most countries the ratio of extension agents to farmers even exceeds 1:3000 and 1:10000. For instance, in Nigeria the current ratio of extension agents to farmers is between 1:5000 and 1:10000 with a total workforce of about 7000 public agents (TASAI, 2020). In Tanzania, the average ratio of extension workers to farmers is 1:1172 and 1:500 for crop and livestock farmers respectively (Busungu, C.,etal. (2019). These constraints prescribe the broader vision to revolutionize and commercialize the agriculture sector with the recommended lower ratio of 1:500 down to 1:250 to ensure efficient technical advice to farming communities on proposer utilization of improved technologies for improved crop productivity and livelihood in general.
Agricultural inputs are key to scale innovation and productivity enhancement to accelerate adoption rate through better yield for improved nutrition and income to rural farming communities. Farmers need support beyond their purchase of seeds to adopt improved agricultural technologies to realize the potential of high-yielding crop varieties on their farms. That is why technical know-how and technical know-how are fundamental principles for farmers to realize high crop productivity and increased income of value chains.

Therefore, the private-led extension model was engineered to curb the existing gap of a limited number of public extension agents to save marginalized farmers. Private sector actors are increasingly providing extension and advisory services to farmers as part of their service delivery. This has enabled an increase in sales turnover, expanded zone of influence, geographies of coverage, and positioned brand reputation to farmers. With the increasing market competition for seed, fertilizer and crop protection products, most agricultural input companies are driving rural advisory services to educate, inspire and persuade farmers to buy their products. Seed and chemical companies tend to develop demonstration plots along the main road, village centers and markets to showcase the performance of their products, especially seed, chemical and fertilizer. Some input companies are working closely with Village-based advisors (VBAs) through the development and supervision of learning sites (demonstration plots).

Such a role incentivized VBA and earned a commission to continue supporting farmers with technical know-how on sustainable farming while aggregating input demand from farming communities. This has enabled seed, fertilizer and chemical companies to market and advertise their products and thus building good relationships with farmers for future business.

AGRA Tanzania has strived to strengthen private-led extension through the recruitment and training of more than 6,000 Village-based advisors (VBA) to envision sustainably growing Africa’s food systems. VBAs are self-employed farmers trained in good agronomic practices and other rural income-generating activities so that they cascade the knowledge to their local communities. The VBA is selected by farmers themselves and works closely with public extension agents to support advisory service to smallholder farmers. Training in VBA expose them to both practical and theory session with a deeper understanding of sustainable farming practices from seed selection, planting spacing, timely planting, compost making, usage of organic and chemical fertilizer use, disease and pest management, harvesting, post-harvest handling, storage, aggregation and other rural entrepreneurship.

VBAs are connected to different business avenues ranging from input companies (seed, fertilizer, crop protection), Hub agro-dealers, aggregators/off-takers, traders, mechanization, and processors. Similarly, others are connected to Non-profit organizations (NGOs) to extend education and disseminate required products and services to farming communities for improved livelihoods. In the process with such linkages, VBAs have the opportunity to generate income through commission and even start their own agro-enterprises. These profit-driven activities promote the sustainability of the VBAs which allows them to continue to offer services to farmers in their communities. The VBA model has become a game-changer for many young male and female farmers through changing mindset on agribusiness, exploiting rural agri-entrepreneurship opportunities and inclusion in farming activities.
Most input companies established and strengthened agronomy/extension departments to extend advisory services to rural farming communities. Expanded input supply networks to reach farmers through VBA, retail, and hub agro-dealers as preferred input distribution channels and service delivery. Moreover, input companies are actively transforming their mindset by showcasing agri-innovation through farmer field days and agricultural exhibitions to advertise and cultivate mutual business partnerships. Also, the extension services provided by companies include technical guidance and training on crop agronomy, crop care, and harvesting methods to improve crop yield. Some companies also provide education on the safe use of pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and nematicides through meetings with smallholders, field demonstrations, field days, and visual materials such as posters, brochures, leaflets, banners, and audio-visual content. In addition to that, seed companies are increasingly creating awareness to farmers through the provision of seed samples freely especially for new varieties, normally for maize packed in 50 – 100 grams to test the ecological viability and performance of that particular seed so as to attract demand for the next cropping season.
Digital technology (ICT) is increasingly growing to improve value-chain efficiencies across various interventions from farm to markets. The agri-input companies utilize digital platforms to advertise and market products and services but also promote E – e-extension in this era of digitization. The platforms connect farmers with value chains actors from production, information, and markets. The platforms ease access to information and extension, input supply, access to finance, and linkages with financial institutions to aggregation, marketing and sales. Digitization is fundamental to inspire youth through “making agriculture smart” by offering innovative solutions through addressing existing gaps to improve adoption rate of technology with rural farming communities.
Therefore, the input companies play a significant role in promoting and scaling private-led extensions not only to market their products and services but also the adoption of yield-enhancing technologies. Correspondingly, the VBA model is supplementing access to advisory services but also helping to curb the limited number of public extension agencies since the lower the ratio the better access farmers with technical advice and other relevant agricultural technologies.
They provide information on the use of quality seed, fertilizer, improved certified varieties, mechanization and other yield-enhancing technologies to smallholder farmers. These ultimately sustain improved crop yield, farm nutrition and income, reduce poverty and minimize food insecurity. It’s high time for public and private stakeholders to recognize, incentivize the model, scale and sustain the private-led extension model (VBA) to accelerate the adoption rate for a wider impact to transform the food system holistically.

*Japhet Laizer serves as a Program Officer for AGRA (Sustainably Growing Africa’s Food Systems) and is based in Dar es Salaam. He can be reached at