Eugenia Saini is currently FONTAGRO’s Executive Secretary. FONTAGRO is the Regional Fund for Agricultural Technology. She leads the investment fund and a portfolio of 70 international operations related to science, technology, and innovation for the Latin America and the Caribbean region. She is from Argentina and is an agronomist by training. She holds a doctorate in agricultural sciences, specializing in total factor productivity analysis. One of her seminal works in this field was the estimation of 120 years of TFP for the agricultural sector in Argentina. She is also a National Public Accountant and holds an MS in Food and Agribusiness and an MS in Applied Economics, both from Universidad de Buenos Aires. She has worked in the private and public sectors, both nationally and internationally, especially in multilateral banks. She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship at Cornell University and, more recently, with the Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy (AILA) Scholarship at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Building Africa’s first “e-Extension Platform” for smallholder farmers
February 24, 2021
Sasakawa Africa Association shares their approach to strengthening the resilience of food systems in Africa through innovative approaches using information and communication technologies.
By Ryoya TASAI, Junior Program Officer, Sasakawa Africa Association. The full report on the e-Extension Platform can be downloaded here.
Sasakawa Africa Association is a Consultative Partner of the Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Initiative
The Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) was established in 1986 by Ryoichi Sasakawa, the first chairman of the Nippon Foundation; Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and father of the Green Revolution; and former US President, Jimmy Carter; in response to the famine in the Horn of Africa in the 1980s.
Since then, SAA has strengthened agricultural extension services in 16 countries in Africa. Currently, we have offices in Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda, where we focus on field activities and human resource development at universities and other educational institutions. We also implement human resource development projects in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania.
SAA’s longstanding commitment to working with smallholder farmers in Africa has led to adoption of SAA methods as part of national extension systems. In the four focus countries, more than 10 million farmers have participated in SAA training. In Ethiopia, the government adopted SAA-style demonstration plots for the country’s agricultural extension system in 1995. This became the foundation for the current public agricultural extension system of approximately 70,000 agents. Nigeria also adopted SAA’s agricultural extension approach as one of the country’s agricultural extension models.
Impact of COVID-19 in Africa
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted agriculture in Africa. In mid-April 2020, SAA conducted a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on agricultural value chains in Africa. The survey was carried out in 11 countries where SAA operates, through telephone and email interviews with farmers, brokers, ministry of agriculture officials, university teachers and students in each country.
The results (summarized in this Harvest2050 blog) revealed that stakeholders in the agricultural sector have been severely impacted. For example, restrictions on movement have made it challenging for farmers to access essential inputs, access financial services and markets, and recruit agricultural labor.
COVID-19 restrictions also impacted agricultural extension services, resulting in lost learning opportunities for farmers. In response, SAA is working to develop an innovative “e-Extension” approach, a first in Africa. SAA will provide e-Extension support for technology transfer, labor-saving agriculture, and access to inputs.
Activities in SAA focus countries
When SAA began implementation in Uganda in 1997, the number of farmers per extension worker was about 1,800 households, making it difficult to ensure the quality of agricultural extension. Therefore, SAA introduced an extension model in which farmers were trained as Community Based Facilitators (CBFs). These CBFs have been the focal point in each community and help improve agricultural productivity through dissemination of technology in demonstration plots. In 2011, SAA began to train young farmers to become Commodity Association Traders (CATs) for agricultural inputs and commodities. This innovation also improved agricultural productivity, facilitated access to markets, and led to improved income for farmers. In 2018, Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture officially adopted SAA’s extension model as the “Village Agent model” into the national extension system, and now aims to train 32,000 CATs across the country.
Restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in significant obstacles to face-to-face technology transfer by CBFs, and trade in agricultural inputs and products by CATs. Under these circumstances, an e-Extension Platform can ensure that farmers still receive the information they need.
As part of the e-Extension Platform, SAA Uganda has introduced smartphone apps from two ventures in Uganda, m-Omulimisa and Akorion, and is training extension workers in their use. Through m-Omulimisa, extension workers can distribute vital information as needed. Farmers can also send and receive replies. For example, farmers can send photos of suspected crop diseases, and extension agents can provide recommendations. Farmers may also receive information on markets and weather in their area. The EzyAgric app by Akorion allows online purchase of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. This is a breakthrough for farmers, avoiding high and unfair prices often imposed by middlemen.
SAA Uganda is also sharing information through radio and connecting local traders and agricultural input suppliers through WhatsApp. Radio talk shows are produced in collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and HarvestPlus. Videos on pest control, post-harvest handling, etc. are produced in several local languages and shared through WhatsApp.
In Ethiopia, SAA provided smartphones to extension workers and introduced Bitrix24, a customer relationship management (CRM) system platform, which enables SAA staff and extension workers to remotely communicate, share information, exchange reports and feedbacks. Also, using the Digital Classroom System (DCS) projector Extension Agents (EAs) could effectively provide video-based training and disseminate information to many farmers at a time by screening Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) videos from production to marketing in rural areas where there is no access to electricity and internet connectivity.
In Mali, smartphones were provided to extension workers, regional promoters and farmers. Training videos on sealed storage, drying of products, and storage management were produced and uploaded to the smartphones. SAA and the National Seed Research Institute of Mali (LABOSEM) produced training videos on home-grown seeds in French and local (Bambara) languages. Online training will also be conducted using the smartphones.
Nigeria is disseminating the nutrient expert (NE) fertilizer recommendations and cassava-maize intercropping agronomy systems using the Maize and Cassava app. These apps are being scaled-up under SAA’s e-Extension Platform. The NE tool considers indigenous nutrient capacity of the soil including nutrients from organic sources such as crop residue and manure and previously applied inorganic fertilizers, to determine the adequate amounts of NPK fertilizers so as to minimize nutrient-related constraints and achieve high and attainable yield in that location. The yield increase will result into improved food security and achieving high profitability in the short and medium term.
Since 1993, SAA has also implemented the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Agricultural Extension Education (SAFE) to retrain mid-career extension workers in 29 universities and agricultural institutions in 11 countries. The curriculum enables extension workers to learn about the latest issues affecting smallholder farmers, including climate smart agriculture, gender equality and nutrition. SAFE has provided two universities, Bahir Dar University in Ethiopia and Segou University in Mali, with the necessary materials to build an “e-Learning Platform”. Also, preparations are underway to enable extension workers to attend university classes online.
Future prospects and challenges
SAA envisions an e-Extension Platform that provides smallholder farmers information about technology transfer, agricultural inputs, and markets at any time. The e-Extension Platform should not only improve agricultural productivity in the COVID-19 era, but also resolve the “information asymmetry” that can occur in agricultural extension throughout the value chain through the active use of ICT, even in the post-COVID-19 era. The use of m-Omulimisa has enabled communication between Ugandan smallholder farmers and extension workers and ensures that ‘technology transfer continues in the absence of face-to-face communication. EzyAgric has facilitated smallholder farmers’ access to agricultural inputs. During 2021, we will continue our work to build Africa’s first e-Extension Platform for smallholder farmers.
Although E-extension can play a vital role in providing information to farmers during and after the pandemic, we still need for agricultural extension workers to provide direct guidance to farmers. We believe that the ideal form of support is a “best mix” of support that combines the conventional face-to-face method of technology transfer when necessary with the promotion of Digital Transformation (DX) in agricultural dissemination.