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Why agricultural extension departments must be revived

By y Femi Ibirogba (Head, Agro-Economy) and Abigail Ikhaghu
13 January 2022   |   2:56 am
Researchers and farmers have called on the government at all levels to revive the moribund agricultural extension departments in each state of the federation

A maize farm

Researchers and farmers have called on the government at all levels to revive the moribund agricultural extension departments in each state of the federation as part of measures to tackle various challenges retarding agricultural productivity and efforts to ensure food security in the country.

The need for energised and more effective agricultural extension units has become more pronounced in the last few years, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted farming activities, supply chains and food inflation heightens. Also, the preponderance of old and low-yielding varieties of crops among farmers, poor understanding of adequate plant population per hectare and counter-productive farm practices of farmers call for a radical intervention through research and development techniques, newer and better varieties, among others.

Food inflation
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the cost of food in Nigeria increased 17.21 per cent in November of 2021 over the same month in the previous year. 

In November 2021, NBS stated that the yearly food inflation rate rose, for the 24th consecutive month, to 20.75 per cent in October from 20.71 per cent in September, following further increases in the prices of basic food items.

NBS disclosed this in its Consumer Price Index (CPI) and Inflation Report for October 2021, saying: “This rise in the food index was caused by increases in prices of food products, coffee, tea and cocoa, milk, cheese and eggs, bread and cereals, vegetables and potatoes, yam and other tubers.” 

Increases in prices are often triggered off under a condition of excess demand oversupply as a result of a deficit in production caused by factors such as lack of information on new production techniques, better inputs and good practices. It is believed that agricultural extension will help farmers boost their productivity and more food in circulation will check price increases.

However, the Provost, Federal College of Animal Health and Production Technology (FCAH&PT), Dr Olatunde Owosibo, said reviving agricultural extension services would boost food production because “extension services are the root of rural development and means of boosting food production.”

He added that understanding the problems of farmers and relaying them to researchers would help resolve the problems associated with food production.

Owosibo said extension services are means of propagating new technologies and modern techniques of food production to farmers, thereby boosting food production and halting inflation.
Food insecurity
Extension services are also inevitable in the face of food insecurity. Nigeria is said to be food-insecure based on the quantity of food produced versus quantity demanded vis-a-vis the population. Production data on rice, wheat, tomato, palm oil, soya beans, poultry and livestock production, among others, indicate that there are deficits. This situation accounts for persistent food inflation as indicated by NBS data.

Wheat production in Nigeria as of 2020-2021 harvest season was 55,000 tonnes, whereas, wheat imports were estimated at 4.9 million tonnes. Devalued naira means higher prices for imported items, including food. Again, maize production in the same period declined by 13 per cent to 9.0 million tonnes, while consumption was estimated at about 16 million tonnes.

The deficits and food insecurity are linked to low farmers’ productivity. An average of 1.2 metric tonnes of cereals/ha) and high post-harvest losses and waste keep Nigeria constantly short of food, fueling food inflation. Experts said there is low productivity because farmers lack information and updates from agronomists, researchers and agricultural scientists.

A visiting professor with the National Universities Commission (NUC), Abuja, Prof. Shehu Garki Ado, who is also a grain breeder, said reviving extension services is a key to achieving the country’s policy of food self-sufficiency, as well as surplus for export to earn foreign exchange.

He said: “A lot of concluded agricultural research results are on shelves ready to reach the farmers for improvement of agricultural production. The ratio of extension personnel to farmers is very insignificant compared to the recommendations of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).” 

As of 2018, the ratio of extension agents to farmers was 1: 5,000, against FAO’s recommendation of 1:800.

Poor information dissemination and linkage
Researchers also said to maintain a productive town-and-gown communication between farmers and researchers/institutes and to eradicate poor information dissemination about new farm technologies, improved varieties and good farm practices to farmers, extension services at state and local government levels are inevitable.

The Director, Extension and Linkage, Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi, Lagos, Dr ’Dele Oyeku, also harped on the relevance of resuscitating extension service, describing it as a must.

He said: “The challenge we have as a nation is not dearth of indigenous technologies to power rural and urban agricultural development, but how do we take the developed technologies from our various research centres to the end-users, mainly farmers.” 

In the agricultural sector, the professionals responsible for the assignment of getting the developed technologies to the farmers are the extension officers, Oyeku explained.

“Hence,” he said, “the need to train and re-train these officers, as well as providing them with necessary tools and enabling environment cannot be overemphasised.”

He added that reviving agricultural extension units across the country, therefore, would be a step in the right direction to boost agriculture, thereby enhancing food and nutrition security in Nigeria.

Buttressing this, the Executive Director of the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), Dr Patrick Adebola, said: “Looking at the various problems facing agriculture in the country, it is very important for the government to revitalise and expand agricultural extension and advisory services in Nigeria.”

He added that attention should be paid particularly to women and youth farmers to help establish agribusinesses that are profitable and sustainable.

Reviving ADPs in states as the way forward
Stakeholders have also advocated that boosting existing extension service delivery using the Agricultural Development Programmes (ADPs) will reduce the communication gaps between farmers and researchers.

Prof. Ado said a lot of new farming technologies for improved productivity, including new crop varieties, are available for utilisation, and there should be linkage with farmers.

“In the case of crops, different varieties are available for specific purposes; some to contend with the vagaries of weather changes in response to the global warming. In most crops, extra early, early and full-season varieties are available. 

“There are also varieties which are insect and disease-resistant as well as drought-tolerant. Most, if not all of these varieties, are not in the hands of farmers. The farmers really need them to plan and adjust their production patterns. Extension staff are the ones to advice and guide the farmers appropriately.

Ado added that apart from the increased productivity, there are other challenges that include, but are not limited to storage, marketing and value addition.

“All these can be transferred to farmers by the extension personnel so that farming is treated as a business rather than subsistence. The authorities at all the tiers of government should, therefore, give agricultural extension the priority it deserves in terms of training and provision of necessary materials, including transportation and incentives to reach out to the rural farmers,” Prof Ado said.

Another professor of agriculture and Director, Research Innovation and Training, Kwara State University, Malete, Prof. Aliyu Olawale Kwasu, said apart from reviving the unit, the personnel must be trained and equipped with innovative technologies to reach wider communities.

He said: “Extension agents not only disseminate information about improved technologies but serve as feedback on farmers’ challenges and expectations.”

Also speaking with The Guardian, the Project Manager, BASICS II, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Abuja Station Head and former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Development), Federal University of Agriculture Abeokuta (FUNAAB), Prof. Lateef Sanni, said extension service delivery is critical for rural development, sustainable improvements and farm intensification.

“If you recall, the successes of our agricultural sector had extensive support of Agricultural Development Programmes (ADPs), supported by the World Bank. You will see extension blocks were closer to the farmers.

“These extension agents introduced the latest production and post-harvest technologies to the small-holders. What we have today is total lip service to agricultural development. Barely can you have 20 per cent of farmers with modern agricultural innovations and solutions. Hence, agricultural yields are very low,” Prof. Sanni said.

He added that it would be better to revive agricultural (extension) units across the country to boost food production, saying, “This will also create more employment and income generation for the youth.”

Use of technologies
Some specialists have also suggested the use of technology gadgets and social media platforms to reach farmers and aggregators through their local languages. Mobile phones and internet use among farmers are gradually on the increase, and assembling high-tech graduates using technologies and gadgets to reach farmers would boost productivity.

For instance, RiceAdvice, developed by Africa Rice Centre, is a free android-based app that provides farm-specific advice on rice management practices. Farmers, extension workers, private sector and development agencies having smartphones or tablets with android devices can use the app.

To generate the guidelines, farmers need to answer questions regarding their rice-growing environment, crop management and current yield level, among others. This interview takes about five to 10 minutes.

The app can identify the best choice of fertiliser to be purchased, the amounts and application timing, based on nutrient requirement and fertiliser prices. Using the app, farmers can also select their own target yield level based on their budget. RiceAdvice does not require an internet connection to generate the guidelines, except for updating the app.