Envisioning the Future of Extension


The Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity Annual Community of Practice Convening took place in Washington, D.C. on March 4-5, 2020. The event was co-organized by DLEC, a USAID funded project led by Digital Green in partnership with International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), AgReach (University of Illinois), and the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM). There were 65 in-person and online participants from 16 countries. 

Participants discussed “What will extension look like 10-20 years from now? What will change or won’t? What are we already learning that relates to that future?” To this end, the organizers called for inputs and competitively selected speakers, who presented using formal talks, panel discussions, lightning inputs, and a poster session. Abstracts and presentations are available here. In addition, recordings of some panels are available here.

The keynote speaker, Robynne Anderson (President of Emerging Ag) spoke about the future of food systems. She stated we need extension systems fit for the purpose that works territorially with local experts but using a systems perspective. Technology allows us to share timely, multidirectional, relevant information with feedback loops. Extension has gone through ups and downs of political support; thus, proponents must sharpen the dial, develop durable solutions, show outcomes, and intersect what we are doing with global conversations such as the 2021 World Food Systems Summit.



Maura Barry (Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development) spoke about the Agency’s journey to self-reliance and the need to measure success differently and crowd in collective resources using a multisectoral strategy. She also spoke about how engaging with the private sector can help build resilient extension systems. Rob Bertram (Chief Scientist at USAID BFS) stated that knowledge is key to food security and development. We need more convergence between agriculture and nutrition – the human face of agriculture – and USAID now has a Chief Nutritionist.

Panellists discussed the need for ethical professional private sector extension providers and the role of the public sector for convening and providing guidance. We need public-private partnerships and strengthening partnerships involves identifying key players, capacity building, professionalization and certification, elaborating codes of conduct, and creating national platforms. Producer organizations are key as providers and users of extension services. 

We need to build resilient market systems; thus entrepreneurship is important. We need to expand the definition of extension beyond production. Youth are key in this. We need to understand and take advantage of market opportunities and incentives to engage youth as providers and recipients of extension services. Not every young person is an entrepreneur; they need the right mindset and soft skills. Prioritize revenue-generating services over technical skills. If you have a quality product people will pay.

We should also not talk about youth (or women) without talking about the community in which they are situated. Social dynamics should be the focus of programs. Thus trust and commitment are key, according to Paul McNamara from AgReach.

Relatedly, we should strengthen the systems in which extension is situated. Systems strengthening is nuanced and complex. A unique dataset from the Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension (SANE)/AgReach at University of Illinois and IFPRI provides evidence on extension systems strengthening in Malawi. SANE is a story about scale, engaging 150 local platforms benefitting five million people. When the system works, it brings harmonization, access to services, and resources. Stakeholders see the value in the platforms and there is a change in mindset by farmers, government, and nongovernmental organizations. A key takeaway is the need to focus on the meso level: the middle level of bureaucracy.

In the future, extension will require a strong value proposition. We must learn to tell our story better, as the State of California has with a series of value statements for extension. This means we must envision the future of extension evaluation and use innovative insights at the nexus of futures research and extension evaluation.

In addition, big data can help with this; data “on” and “for” farmers, coupled with viable business models, can enhance extension as a medium of resources and by supporting system linkages; however, it is not a silver bullet. We must digitize data to speak to context-specific needs and be committed to data transparency and continuity. Only then can we ensure that the data generated by research and practice feed into sound policies and strategies that reflect ground reality and are implemented by organizations that are closest to where smallholder farmer needs are.



The discussions showed that at the macro level there remain multiple global and national priorities that will require an effective extension and advisory services if they are to be achieved — food security, poverty reduction, stability, resilience, and natural resources and environmental conservation. Little optimism as to future availability of funding for extension was evidence, underscoring the point above about the need to actively speak up about extension.

At the meso and micro level, extension seems to be effective only when it is responsive to client (farmer) interests and farm-level conditions. In future, all farmers must be seen as clients, and we need more public-private partnerships.

Current future-looking activities were presented – often private sector-based. These: (a) operate as necessary to obtain continued funding from the sale of inputs or purchase of a product or from donor programs; (b) have limited scale of operations; and (c) seem to lack mechanisms to either align services to meet national/global development objectives or to respond to client demands.

Thus, the situation for the future of extension may appear dismal. How can it be improved and scaled to achieve development objectives? One possible solution may be that limited public funding available for extension should be focused on system support: (a) EAS policy and coordination; (b) training; (c) research and technical support services; (d) communications systems; and (e) monitoring and data collection.

Overall, we received positive feedback with participants suggesting that: 1) there was an 81% likelihood that they would share new skills & insights learned through the Convening with others; 2) 93% agreement that the conversation was rich; 3) 90% agreement that the presentations were relevant, and 4) 76% agreement that the ideas presented were novel.


Tech Solutions for Smallholder Farmers in Bangladesh’s Jessore district

While Bangladesh has witnessed some recent success in improving food security in Bangladesh, such as tripling its rice production, some challenges remain. A key challenge is that of connecting smallholder farmers to markets so that they can realise the best prices possible for their produce.

There are of course many factors that contribute to an uncoordinated market system which makes it unprofitable for smallholder farmers. Poor road networks, high transportation costs, a proliferation of actors, lack of capital and collective bargaining power to negotiate prices make it difficult for smallholder farmers to venture into markets outside of their community in hope of better prices for their produce. These challenges also discourage youth to enter farming as it’s not viewed as a profitable occupation.

So we wondered if we can break this status quo and tweak the market system in such a way that it is fair for smallholder farmers?

For the last two years, Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) project implemented by Digital Green, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services and Care International has been trying to find a solution to this challenge by piloting Digital Green’s access-to-market model in Bangladesh. In this model, a market entrepreneur is selected in each village in consultation with the community. Usually, a young farmer, this entrepreneur (aggregator) provides ‘door-to-door’ service of transporting the fresh produce from farm to market for a nominal fee.

When farmers in the community want to take their produce to the market they call the aggregator, who comes and picks-up the produce, sells it at the market on their behalf and gives the money back to the farmers the same day.

Farmers save time and cost of transportation – especially if they are vegetable growers and need to go to the market approximately every four days. By optimising transport based on the volume of produce, the aggregator too is able to control cost and gets better market prices with stronger negotiation power for bulk selling.

The model leverages digital technology to ensure transparency, efficiency and trust between the aggregator and farmer. When the aggregator collects the produce from farms, they use digital weighing machines to measure the quantity collected by each farmer. They also use separate sacks for each farmer to ensure those farmers with higher quality produce get better prices. After selling the produce, they log each transaction in the mobile app which generates an SMS receipt for each farmer. The farmer can also call the buyer and verify the price in the receipt. A mobile helpline for farmers that is channelled to a Digital Green field staff also assists with troubleshooting.

The traditional market system in Bangladesh is not gender inclusive. However, with trusted relationships with the aggregators, women heads of household were also able to get reliable access to markets and better prices for their produce and this encouraged more women farmers to cultivate home-stead gardening.

From April 2017, through this service, we have transported approx. 2.6 million kg of vegetables and ensured $1 million in payments. We have about 2,300 active farmers using the service and each farmer saves 3-5 hours of their time each week and we have seen an indication of 12-15% income increase through this service. These numbers are driven by the highly motivated, young entrepreneurs who take pride in the hard work of vegetable aggregation and transportation from dawn till dusk.

Due to the trust and respect aggregators built within their communities, DLEC was able to link them with Care Krishi Utsho, an enterprise of Care Bangladesh, to provide quality organic inputs to farmers. This partnership resulted in the aggregators gaining access to an added income source as mobile sales-agents of Krishi Utsho selling quality inputs to smallholder farmers. The aggregators also become a focal point for public sector extension agents, linking them up with smallholder farmers to provide demand-driven, timely and relevant advisory.

The success of DLEC’s market access engagement catalyzed additional interest and funding from The Government of the Netherlands to expand the program to additional geography within Bangladesh as part of the Profitable Opportunities for Food Security project implemented by ICCO Cooperation. SNV Netherlands Development Organization leveraged the DLEC aggregators to share weather advisory, plant & growth tips and pest outbreak alerts via their Fosholi app. And the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London is investing resources to study how to integrate nutrition, gender and climate resilience into the aggregator-led market access model.

Combatting Fall Armyworm in Ethiopia

The fall armyworm (FAW), Spodoptera frugiperda, was first reported on the African continent in early 2016 and, in Ethiopia alone, has infested approximately a quarter of the 2.6 million hectares of land planted with maize since 2017. To tackle the devastation, the Government of Ethiopia set up a National Technical Advisory Committee on FAW (FAW TAC) in early 2018 which includes government stakeholders such as the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Resources (MoALR) and the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC); agriculture universities, donors such as FAO and USAID; and implementing partners such as Digital Green and Fintrac. The FAW TAC is faced with a challenging mission. Given the extent of devastation that FAW has already wrought on smallholder maize farmers in Ethiopia, one tool or strategy to survey, monitor, report and combat the pest will not be enough. To tackle the national spread, an effective solution will require a menu of options and a multi-pronged approach.

The Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity project (DLEC) is piloting a multi-channel, multi-stakeholder approach leveraging video-enabled extension, a national IVR question and answer (Q&A) forum, a mobile-based farmer and extension agent survey, and the Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System (FAMEWS) – a mobile application deployed by the MoALR and FAO. We hypothesize that the systematic integration of these channels can create a demand-driven, timely and responsive pest management system.

DLEC is implementing the pilot in collaboration with the Feed the Future Ethiopia Value Chain Activity (FTF-EVCA) implemented by Fintrac in ten woredas in Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia and will include 25,000 farmers. The outcome we are seeking is to leverage existing national systems and partnerships with ongoing projects to create a holistic digital suite of tools and collect real-time data to enable rapid, targeted decisions about how to develop focused and contextual content, train extension agents and farmers and monitor performance to combat the spread of FAW.

The diagram above shows the multi-pronged approach that involves government extension agents showing local videos on FAW scouting and control mechanisms, farmers calling the IVR Q&A line to record FAW sightings, government and partners conducting a mobile survey for additional real-time data, and the FAW TAC and others using the multiple data sources for effective and efficient decision-making on FAW mitigation. One of the roles that DLEC plays is to ensure that the FAW control practices shown in the videos can actually be implemented by the farmers. The videos also promote good agricultural practices to get high nutrients and reduced pests in maize plants such as tillage after harvesting for soil polarization, timely planting, intercropping and push-pull cropping; local practices such as broadcasting of ash, sand, pepper and soap into infested whorls; and organized system-related activities such as parasitoid and pathogen verification and registration.

Our hope is that this multi-pronged integrated approach can help farmers combat FAW, and the lessons learned can be leveraged to fight other pests and diseases as well. We’ve just begun implementation so watch this space for updates, results and lessons learned. And do share what you’re learning in pest management and integration of digital tools and messages to enable real-time decision making.

How will you transform extension in 2018?

Happy New Year! This is the time of year when we look back at the previous year and take stock of our accomplishments and the obstacles we each faced, many of those challenges we face every year.  With the new year comes the renewed hope that we will overcome those challenges. I have those hopes for agricultural extension.

While there is a renewed emphasis on extension in many countries, there are persistent challenges that remain.  We still are not reaching women farmers in the numbers we should, there are issues with adequate transportation and infrastructure, extension workers lack training in information and communication technologies and many work in isolation from other key extension providers. When daily facing these problems, the challenges can seem daunting, but they don’t have to be if we face them together.

At the end of 2017, DLEC and INGENAES held the Revitalizing Extension for Agricultural Development event in Washington D.C., where we challenged participants to address some of the challenges those of us who work in extension faced and begin figuring out the next steps to overcoming them. We looked at increasing access to producer organization services among marginalized populations; better incorporating higher educational institutions into extension, research and outreach; linking research, extension and farmers; maximizing the use of effective and context-specific digital technologies for farmers; and empowering equality through extension and advisory services.

Our participants were key agricultural development stakeholders from governments, donors, researchers and private and civil society practitioners. They came from Bangladesh, India, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda and USA. In addition, we conducted video interviews with extension workers from several countries to ensure we had voices from the field to help ground our discussions.

The challenges to extension exercise were conducted in a day, so as you imagine, we did not resolve any of the issues, but, most importantly, we began the conversation.  We took the first step in the journey to overcome these challenges. In the coming months, we will continue these conversations on the DLEC Community of Practice online forum with debates and discussions, blogs and webinars. The first webinar will be at the end of January looking at how market-oriented extension models can be more inclusive of women.

This community of practice is meant to be a place where we all can share and learn from each other’s successes and lessons learned. I invite you to join the conversation and share the lessons you have learned, enabling all of us to transform extension, so we can reach the all the farmers with information, tools and services that help them succeed.  Though we all do not work directly with farmers every day, we can make a significant impact if we are willing to work with each other.  So, I ask you again, how will you transform extension in 2018?


This post was first published on dlec.hivebrite.com. The Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) project measurably improves extension programs, policies and services by creating locally-tailored, partnership-based solutions and by mobilizing active communities of practice to advocate for scaling proven approaches. Led by Digital Green in partnership with Care International, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), DLEC is an action-oriented, evidence-based learning project.

A Country on the Cusp of a Digital Revolution in Agricultural Development

Last month, I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh with my colleagues hosting an event on “Exploring Agriculture Innovations in Bangladesh to Improve Food Security” on behalf of Feed the Future’s Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) program, which Digital Green leads in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), CARE International (CARE) and the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS). Bangladesh is one of the countries in which DLEC is operating to measurably improve extension programs, policies and service delivery by creating locally tailored, partnership-based solutions and by mobilizing active communities of practice to scale this work. The event in Dhaka was one such community event, and invited representatives from development, research, donors, government and the private sector with an interest in leveraging (mostly digital) technology to strengthen the agricultural extension system in Bangladesh. The number and caliber of attendees exceeded our expectations, and the level of dialogue about and enthusiasm for digital innovations was inspiring. This event made it clear to me that there’s a real opportunity to transform extension in Bangladesh.

I asked myself what is it about Bangladesh’s enabling environment that makes it so ready for this digital revolution? According to the 2016 analysis that DLEC conducted of the extension and advisory services environment in the country, “information and communication technologies (ICTs) and digitization are already viewed [by key actors in the country] as important tools to extending extension’s reach.” Furthermore, the government has introduced initiatives such as Digital Bangladesh, to digitize systems and structures down to the smallest rural administrative and local governments over the next three years, demonstrating a conscious effort to overcome the digital divide as a means of lifting people out of poverty. Additionally, there are over 118 million mobile phone subscribers; in a country with a population of 163 million, this is an exciting opportunity to connect people to each other and to the services and information they need. There is a growing momentum to design tools that leverage digital access to reach and empower more people to improve their lives, as evidenced by the numerous recognized digital projects in agriculture in Bangladesh, such as the A-Card digital finance solution for farmers from AESA, the remote-sensing technology for water management from CIMMYT and the Farmer Query System that uses smartphone pictures to diagnose plant disease from mPower.

I am really excited that DLEC is contributing to this revolution, in conjunction with the USAID Agricultural Extension Support Activity (AESA) Project, by launching Digital Green’s farm-to-market aggregation and transport service in Bangladesh. Under the program, farming communities select a farmer leader/aggregator, who coordinates with peer farmers to arrange transportation based on the quantity of crops harvested and provides critical market information, such as commodity prices. The aggregator uses a mobile application for record keeping and provides SMS receipts to his fellow farmers for transparency. Thus far, we have reached over 2,300 people in 76 villages, creating 30 youth agri-entrepreneurs since the program began in April, and farmers have shown a willingness to pay a portion of both the aggregator and transport costs. (Watch this video to find out more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-OMXQxi1NA)

I left Dhaka feeling inspired by all the ground-breaking digital solutions I learned about that are working to strengthen the agricultural sector in the country. Although most of these solutions are being tested only on a small scale and are not well-coordinated, there is evidence of a growing technology sector and encouragement from the government to leverage more ICT tools. The question for me then is, what is our role as organizations that work in agricultural development in coordinating these solutions and encouraging their uptake so we can measurably improve the country’s extension system for smallholder farmers? This is a pivotal time to mobilize this active community and promote the cross-learning of these effective approaches across sectors from public to private, from government to farmer organizations. DLEC can help catalyze the scaling of these proven approaches and leverage the existing enabling environment within Bangladesh, but it will take cooperation among all the actors if we are going to see the emergence of a modern, ICT-enabled extension and advisory service system that creates significant impact in the lives of smallholder farmers. Given the environment in Bangladesh, I think this is achievable and something DLEC will be working towards. What role will your organization play?

Reducing Time and Increasing Profits for Farmers in Bangladesh

An unpredictable summer storm in southwest Bangladesh last April caused many farmers, like Abdul Mannan, to make some tough decisions. The government of Bangladesh estimates about 1.2 million tons of rice was lost because farmers were forced to harvest their paddy crops sooner than expected, which created a labor shortage and an increase in labor wages. The farmers had to decide whether to harvest the remaining paddy or take the time to sell their already harvested crops before they were lost?

The decision is a question of return on investment. Do they spend on harvesting the rice, which is usually their most profitable crop, or use that time to sell their vegetables? Abdul was one of the lucky farmers who had joined Feed the Future’s Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) programs new initiative. In conjunction with the USAID Agriculture Extension Support Activity Project (AESA), DLEC launched Digital Greens Loop program in Bangladesh. Under the program, farming communities select a farmer leader/aggregator, who coordinates with peer farmers to arrange transportation based on the quantity of crops harvested. The aggregator uses a mobile application for record keeping and provides SMS receipts to his fellow farmers for transparency.
Abdul Mannan, a farmer in Bangladesh who has benefited from Digital Green's vegetable aggregation project Loop

In the past, it would take Abdul three days to sell his produce. He would rent a tricycle/rickshaw van to take his produce to the market at a cost of BDT 1.25 per kilogram. Now, the aggregator weighs, packs and hauls this produce to the market directly from the farm. Abdul saves fifty percent on transportation cost because the aggregator hires a larger motorized vehicle and the cost is shared among all the farmers.

Once at the market, the aggregator negotiates for the collective to get better prices. Markets in Bangladesh are unregulated and have a long forward chain, making smallholder farmers vulnerable to market manipulation. Traders often charge 10 percent extra to cover transportation, loss, and wastage. With Loop, the aggregator has collective bargaining power–traders usually provide better prices and facilities when they can buy larger quantities. Because they are dealing in bulk, the traders charge less to cover loss and wastage. Abdul’s aggregator was able to negotiate three percent.

Abdul sold 335 kilograms of pointed gourd through the Loop program. He saved BDT 200 on transportation cost and earned BDT 620 in profit. Since he did not have to go to the market himself, he saved three days, which he dedicated to harvesting the remaining paddy crop.

Already working with thousands of farmers in India, the Loop initiative has a goal of reaching 1000 farmers, like Abdul, in Bangladesh before the end of the project.