Reaping greater impacts in agricultural extension
Technologies like improved seeds and fertilizer have the potential to help farmers significantly increase their yields and therefore increase their profits. In some cases, adoption of agricultural technology has been an important factor in countries' transitions out of poverty.
A farmer’s decision to adopt a new technology, however, requires several types of information. The farmer must know that the technology exists, they must believe that the technology is beneficial, and they must know how to use it effectively. Further complicating the matter, learning about a new agricultural technology is fundamentally challenging. Even if a farmer sees high yields on a plot planted with a new technique or input (like seeds or fertilizer), that might not tell them very much about how it will work on their own plot of land or under different weather conditions.
Governments and NGOs in developing countries dedicate many resources to deliver information that encourages farmers to adopt new inputs and practices. Agricultural extension—in which local agriculture agents visit farmers where they live and work—is the most common method for transmitting this information in developing countries, but run-of-the-mill extension has yielded mixed results at best. In some cases, extension services may be ineffective if they promote a technology which is unprofitable, or a technology of which farmers are already fully informed about the costs, benefits, and production practices. However, if the extension service has selected a successful technology of which farmers are not fully informed—for example, new seed varieties—there may be room to improve learning outcomes by improving the ways that agents demonstrate the technology to farmers.
Some promising experiments have shown that traditional extension can be made more effective through incorporating ICTs, changes in the methods of direct farmer trainings, and changes in how extension programs encourage social diffusion (sharing new technologies with friends and neighbors). Improvements in extension services may be particularly useful where learning is hard and where targeted messages address a behavioral barrier to technology adoption, like procrastination.
On April 6, 2017, Kyle Murphy (Policy Manager, J-PAL Global) led a presentation to the Food Security and Nutrition Network (FSN) outlining key takeaways from randomized evaluations on information and extension services for smallholder farmers. The talk covered the theoretical motivation for J-PAL’s work in the area, and highlighted encouraging examples of farmer field schools using ICTs to reach farmers directly and increasing their effectiveness.
As part of its Emerging Insights series, the Agriculture Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI), led by the Center for Effective Global Action at Berkeley and J-PAL, released a synthesis of findings on interventions providing information to farmers. To read more evaluations in J-PAL’s Agriculture Sector, check out our database of evaluation summaries.