Extension workers use media to empower farmers

He stood with a smile. His back faced his display as he explained the differences between the two soil types. Everyone saw it, he was proud of what he did.

And so he should be.

Wisdom Gausi is a master’s student at The Bunda College of Agriculture in  Lilongwe, Malawi. And at the school’s open house Friday, he got to tell visitors what it is like being an extension worker.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “extension worker” before coming to Malawi. Now that I am, I am amongst the many that think it is a brilliant thing.

The Malawian government has a department of agricultural extension. The department sends “extension workers” to the rural areas for periods of time to train and work with farmers. These government employees quite literally extend the knowledge from institutions in the city like Bunda College to the people in areas that otherwise would not be able to access the information. 

“Without them, our findings would be useless,” said Thithy Sausa, a third year aquaculture student at Bunda College.

Like the Malawian government, Bunda College recognizes the importance of extension workers. It has a program designed specifically for those, like Gausi, who want to become an extension worker.

As a student in the Department of Extension, Gausi says he has spent up to three months at a time living in villages and working with farmers through his school program at Bunda. He has experienced first hand how much a farmer can learn from an extension worker.

But like any system, there are gaps.

Extension workers come in few numbers. There is a shortage across Malawi. There is about one extension worker to every 1,500 farmers in the country.

In addition, it likely costs the government quite a bit of money paying extension workers to live in the rural areas. And then there is the issue of sustainability. How do farmers access information once the extension worker leaves the village?

 In 2009 the Malawian government started the Farmer s Voice Radio Project (FVR). The initiative seeks to train extension workers in radio reporting. The workers travel with recorders in hopes of compiling pieces that can extend to other villages over the radio. This way, extension workers do not have to physically show up to each and every village in order to pass along important messages to farmers. They can do it using the radio instead.

When I first heard this, I thought it was ingenious. But I was also quick to ask, “How many rural farmers have radios?”

Let’s access.

I have been in Malawi just over two weeks now. In this time, I have only heard criticisms about the country’s late President Bingu Wa Mutharika.

Except for one thing.

President Mutharika recognized what a large distribution of cell phones could do for a country. They connect people, spread information, and even increase workers’ productivity. So, like Hitler’s promotion of the cheap Volks Wagen as “every man’s car” so every German could drive in the mid-1900’s, Mutharika struck a deal with China to import thousands of cheap phones so everyone could communicate.  All in all, he wanted every Malawian to have a cell phone.

From what I can see, he was and has been fairly successful in reaching this goal.

Whether they are Blackberries or the ZTE Asian-imported phones, many Malawians have cell phones. And some are even farmers in rural areas.

They cost about 2,500 kwacha, which is about US $10 dollars. I have one. And not a day has passed where I have missed my iPhone. Can you believe that? They work. They really do.

Photo credit: Desiree Buitenbos

But the brilliance behind these cheap phones is not only that almost everyone can afford to buy one. It is that they have built in radios, which also work!

So these phones can have multiple uses for farmers. They allow farmers to tune-in to the extension worker’s radio broadcasts, but they also connect rural farmers to people in the cities.

The connection between a farmer and someone in the city is specifically important because farmers need to know at what cost to sell their crops and products. It is a common problem here, in fact. Farmers, at times, can be unaware of the pricing of certain goods in city locations. If they think products are selling for less than they are, they will loose profit. This is because they will sell their products to the “middle men” for a cheaper rate than the going rates in the cities. The middle men, then, bring the produce to the local markets, sell it for a higher price than what they paid, and pocket more money than the farmer who did more of the labour in the first place.

I have already heard of instances in Malawi where farmers use their cell phones to text a friend in the city to find out how to price their goods for sale. It does happen.

Walking from display to display Friday at Bunda’s open house, it was apparent just how much goes on at the college – the studies, the experiments, and the amount of passion the students have to not only learn but show off their work.

The department of nutrition, for instance, had a station where you could test your blood pressure and find out your body mass index. Students in the aquaculture department prepared tanks full of the fish they breed and monitor in their fisheries on campus.

At the agribusiness station, I was shown the benefit of extracting oil from a Vetiver plant. Did you know Vetiver oil decreases anxiety? Or, that planting Cowpea and Cotton plants beside each other reduces a farmer’s pesticide use?

None of this information would reach a rural farmer without two things: an extension worker and/or a radio.

Surely, not every farmer has a radio, or a cell phone for that matter. But the point to be made here is obvious. The role of an extension worker is completely necessary in order to propel Africa out of food scarcity issues and poverty overall. But there is a shortage of workers. Radios fill this void.

Get farmers cell phones, especially ones with built in radios. And radio stations, listen up, start airing agricultural programs!

Otherwise, the hard working students at Bunda College will have no way to share their agricultural discoveries.

The formula works, now it just needs further experimentation.

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