The digital extension

James Alden

1 Feb 2022

11 min read

Table of contents

  • Digital vs in-person extension services
  • Where digital extension services excel
  • Where face-to-face extension services excel
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Digital vs in-person extension services

Delivering information to smallholder farmers digitally is a trade-off. This should be no secret, and should always be considered as such. Where you benefit from reduced costs, scalability and flexibility, you are sacrificing depth of information, interactivity and the trust that face-to-face extension offers.

Extension delivered in person, and extension delivered digitally are simply different methodologies used to achieve a goal; usually supporting a farmer to improve how they manage their farm. As with any other industry, tools and methodologies are rarely silver bullets. It is highly unlikely that one approach will work for everything. Therefore it is paramount to fit the tool to the goal.

As Abraham Maslow said in 1966, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

There has been a great reluctance to move away from traditional face-to-face methodologies in the agriculture sector. But now that digital approaches are becoming more widely accepted, we also need to be careful that the needle doesn’t shift too far in the other direction.

We always recommend a blended, objective based approach, which recognises the advantages and limitations of both methodologies. Deploying both to maximum effect based on your own organisational objectives. In this article I will briefly explore the scenarios where digital interventions dominate, and those more suited to the old fashioned approach.

Where digital extension services excel

Digital extension approaches dominate across three key categories:

  • Scale
  • Cost
  • Timeliness

If any one of these factors are important to achieving your objectives, then it is almost certainly going to be better to focus on integrating a primarily digital approach, complemented where necessary by face-to-face interactions.

Scale is relatively obvious. Last week we sent 215,000 messages to farmers in under five minutes, for a training programme we are running with our client JustDiggit in Tanzania. For getting simple information from A to B, digital cannot be beaten.

Similarly, cost is also relatively self-explanatory. If we take the same example, the cost of delivering those messages was negligible when compared to the cost of physically sending staff to every farm.

It is also more effective when working at that scale, as you can digitally monitor whether farmers have received the messages. Which is extremely difficult when implementing a community based lead farmer model, the existing alternative.

The area where I believe that digital extension is most frequently overlooked is with regards to the timeliness of information. This is another category that blows physical extension out of the water.

Agriculture is driven by two main factors: time and weather. Certain actions need to be taken at certain times of the year, or a set number of days after an event, or based on (generally) rainfall patterns. These factors are often tied independently to each individual farm, and are extremely difficult to manage on intuition alone.

Let’s take an example. Applying fertilisers to crops is essential to maximise yield and quality, and knowing when to apply is a precise science. If we look at the maize guidance from our client CropNuts:

“Top dressing fertilizer for maize works best when it is applied at the correct crop growth stage and at the recommended rate. Nitrogen takes time to get into the crop. In most cases, the optimum is around the 8-10 leaf stage for top dressing fertilizer for maize. Applying at 3-4 leaf stage leaves probably a 4-6 week gap before the crop is really taking up the fertilizer. This is especially true in seasons with well over 600mm of rainfall like we are experiencing now.”

Each farmer needs to identify accurately when they are at the 8-10 leaf stage, and whether the season has been drier or wetter than average. This is extremely difficult when you don’t have access to a weather forecast. This is again where digital excels. You can very easily create a service that asks farmers to input their planting date, and combine this with localised weather forecasts, to provide farmers with a tailored alert for their individual optimal fertiliser application date. The timing of this information is crucial and variable, so again is simply not possible through a traditional face-to-face approach. This is a complex example, but the same holds true when providing farmers with real-time pricing information, or news regarding Covid restrictions. When information needs to travel fast, or needs to be tailored, digital methodologies are far more appropriate.

Where face-to-face extension services excel

Digital extension services also have distinct limitations, where traditional face-to-face approaches shine. I would be doing the sector a disservice to pretend that this isn’t the case. Face-to-face extension is far more successful when:

  • Information is complex or novel
  • Trust needs to be established

You might think that the first point is similarly obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many organisations try to deliver extremely complex agronomic advice purely through digital channels. As someone who created a digital engagement platform for smallholder farming, this baffles me, as I know where the limits of our technology lie.

I often use the following analogy to explain why complex and novel information should be delivered via field schools, workshops and demonstration farms, and complemented by digital tools such as SMS.

I am a relatively keen gardener. I know my apples from my pears, and don’t kill everything I touch. Let’s say that I know I can drastically improve the taste profile of my apples, whilst maintaining productivity, by grafting a Pink Lady stem onto a Granny Smith root stock. I’ve never grafted anything in my life, and therefore there is no hope in hell that I will be able to manage it by following a series of SMS messages. It simply isn’t going to happen. However, if someone showed me the process in person, where I am able to see what they are doing and ask detailed questions, there’s a chance I’ll succeed.

The temptation to go digital often comes from the desire to scale and to reduce costs. But if the training requires detailed explanation and a high level of support, then there is no point trying to shoehorn this digitally to farmers. Especially through low-tech channels such as SMS. The result will be low levels of success, and probably a number of unhappy farmers.

The other key area where you can’t avoid a good old fashioned field visit is in establishing trust. Trust is a funny concept in the smallholder sector, and people talk of building trust as if it is a uniquely important concept to smallholders. It’s not.

Farmers get spammed with marketing messages and information about new products all the time. There are ongoing projects which claim to change the farmer's life, which then disappear two years later when the funding ends. I don’t read every single click-bait article about which simple tricks will change my life, especially when I don’t know, or distrust the source.

Remember, you are often trying to convince a farmer that their established way of thinking should be changed based on the information that you have. This is their business and their livelihood. Why on earth would they listen to you if they don’t trust you, or don’t know who you are? They want to put faces to organisations, and if they think those people know what they are talking about, they are more likely to listen to what they have to say.

Unfortunately this is a limitation of digital. You sacrifice the human element in favour of cost, scale and time. This will of course become more normal over time, but for now, it is important to remember that trust is essential for everyone, and sometimes that requires visiting a farmer in person.

I hope that this article has helped clarify where lines can be drawn between digital and physical extension. I always recommend that a balance be maintained, and that these different approaches be seen as the tools that they are. What is important is achieving your goals.

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