Agricultural Extension Services in Malawi

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According to a new technical report from IFPRI’s Malawi Strategy Support Program (MSSP), despite the fact that Malawi has exceeded the 10 percent agricultural investment goal set forth by the CAADP, the country’s agricultural productivity has remained stagnant in recent years and food insecurity and undernutrition remain rampant.

To address the continued low agricultural productivity, Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD) requested a series of reports looking into the state of the country’s agricultural extension and advisory services, particularly the provision of and access to those services. The reports use responses from household- and community-level surveys conducted from August-October 2016; a total of 3001 nationally representative households and 299 nationally representative communities were interviewed in all districts of the country except Likoma. The surveys focused on the demand side of agricultural extension services provision and access, and covered information provided by government extension workers, non-government extension workers, health workers and health clinics, and other farmers.

Three-quarters of survey households reported having received some type of agricultural advice within the past two years; half of the survey households reported receiving advice within the past 12 months. In addition, 57 percent of households received health and nutrition advice within the last two years and 36 percent received such advice within the last 12 months.

Common topics of agricultural advice included weather forecasts, timing of planting, improved crop varieties, soil fertility management practices, and water harvesting practices. Some households reported receiving advice on livestock production, post-harvest practices, and agricultural marketing, but these topics were less common. Common health- and nutrition-related advice covered dietary diversity, food safety practices such as washing hands before and after eating, and general hygiene and cleanliness practices.

While men and women were equally likely to receive health- and nutrition-related advice, men were more likely to receive agricultural advice. In male-headed households, women also had a lower likelihood of receiving agricultural advice than women who were the household head; the report suggests that this could be because extension services and training are often focused on household heads. Women are also less likely to receive advice on weather forecasts, improved crop varieties and chemical fertilizers, crop disease control, and irrigation and water harvesting techniques; thus, women are often less likely to be aware of improved technologies. However, the report points out that when women are aware of these improved technologies and practices, they are just as likely to adopt them as men.

Formal education also plays a strong role in access to both agricultural and health and nutrition advice, the report finds; people with higher levels of education are more likely to request, and thus to access, both types of advice. Interestingly, the report also finds that people less than 35 years old are less likely to access both types of advice, as well as less likely to participate in Village Agricultural and Development Committees. Youth also show less demand for advisory or extension services, and are thus less likely to be aware of and try improved technologies and practices. The report highlights this finding as an important point for further research in order to increase the engagement of Malawi’s youth in agricultural production.

Most of the households surveyed gave high ratings to the advice that they received, with 76 percent of farmers stating that they were very satisfied and 86 percent reporting that they followed the advice. However, the report emphasizes that self-reported ratings can be flawed (for instance, if farmers report a higher level of satisfaction than is actually true due to a hesitation to complain about services), and alternative measures of the quality of services provided should be considered.

The report finds that overall, both awareness of and adoption of many of the technologies being promoted remain low. For example, for soil fertility management technologies, such as composting toilets, awareness rates ranged from 14 to 49 percent (the actual awareness rate for composting toilets was 26 percent). The number of farmers actually trying the different improved technologies promoted by extension services ranged from 4 to 35 percent of all survey respondents, or 31 to 81 percent of respondents aware of those technologies. The report suggests that these findings highlight the need to expand the reach of agricultural extension services to increase farmers’ awareness of new technologies and practices, and to better target the messaging provided to ensure that farmers truly understand the benefits of the advice.

Adoption of health- and nutrition-related practices was slightly higher, possibly because such practices are relatively simpler and less costly than agricultural technologies, but the report emphasizes that more effort is needed to further increase uptake of health and nutrition advice, particularly in terms of eating multiple food groups, consuming more iron-fortified products, and using iodized salt. Again, increasing the reach of extension services could be an important channel through which to increase uptake.

In addition to expanding the coverage of agricultural extension services, the report’s findings also highlight the need to shift such services from being supply-driven to being demand-driven. Only 14 percent of farmers receiving advice reported demanding or requesting that advice; in addition, farmers who reported neither requesting nor receiving advice stated that they do have particular needs for advice. Thus, taking into account households’ specific needs regarding topics for advice could improve the functioning of agricultural and health-related extension services.

Surveyed farmers provided several examples of technologies or topics they would like extension services to cover. The report found that much of the advice being requested by farmers covers older agricultural practices, such as minimum tillage, intercropping, and composting. This could be good news for Malawi’s existing extension system, as these services are easily available and thus provision can easily be scaled up within existing programs. The report also suggests that intensifying awareness of improved technologies through cost-effective media campaigns could be a way to create and increase demand for specific extension and advisory services.

In terms of how households currently receive information on agricultural technologies and health and nutrition, the report finds that community or group meetings are the most common, followed by radio, in-person visits by extension agents, short trainings of a group of farmers, and farm demonstrations facilitated by government or development workers. Only 1-2 percent of surveyed farmers reported receiving information through phone or SMS messaging, television, or the internet. Health and nutrition advice came mostly from health workers and hospitals or clinics; few households reported receiving this type of advice through extension services.

Finally, the report finds that when farmers are more connected, they are more likely to receive agricultural and health and nutrition advice. Of the survey households, 81 percent go to market at least once per week, 64 percent use a phone at least once per week, 45 percent listen to the radio every day, and 42 percent participate in village-level agricultural or development committees. The report looks at the correlation of these measures of connectivity with the likelihood of an individual or household receiving agricultural advice and found that people who use the radio or cell phone more often are more likely to receive agricultural advice, as do people who participate in committees. In addition, 33-56 percent of survey respondents reported that they got their information about improve technologies from their fellow farmers; this suggests that social networks and information spillover plays a large role in the spread of improved agricultural technologies. The report suggests that these connectivity measures highlight important channels that can be used to better target and provide agricultural extension services. 

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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S Sridharan, ICRISAT