Village-Based Advisors deliver critical extension services to smallholder farmers

Like many farmers in Kiambu County, which borders Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Teresia Njoki was struggling to grow a maize crop that could afford her a comfortable life.

Yet, for years she was forced to contend with small harvests, often losing most of her output after harvest due to poor handling skills. 

Things, however, changed for her in 2019 when she was introduced to better farming practices, inputs and technologies by a village-based advisor (VBA) in Ikihu, the administrative ward she comes from.

The VBAs are lead farmers who are recruited and trained by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to offer extension advice to peers. AGRA identifies and trains the VBAs in partnership with government extension agents.

“Before my VBA came, we had little harvests such that we could not even feed our children adequately. However, we now witness bigger harvests and our children are content. We are also getting surpluses to sell for money to do other things,” said Njoki, one of the farmers in her region who are now receiving up to 2,634 kilogram/hectare, from as low as 417 kilogram/hectare previously.

The VBA model was designed on the realization that in most regions, extension service provisions are either limited or nonexistent. As a result, the government extension agent-to-farmer ratio in most countries is in excess of 1:5,000, whereas a ratio of 1:500 is considered optimum.

In Kenya, for instance, the government-operated agricultural extension system which used to provide farmers with free services was sharply curtailed, leaving farmers to mostly rely on the expensive private extension providers.

Stanley Kiarie, an elected member of Kenya’s Kiambu County Assembly, decried the absence of extension services in his region.

“In Ikinu, the ward that I represent, for instance, I do not know who the extension officer is, yet I am the area representative. If I do not know the extension officer, how will the farmers know him?” Kiarie posed.

In response to these gaps, AGRA and its partners across Africa implemented the VBA model and have recruited about 31,000 VBAs, thus far, to directly reach 5.2 million farmers with promoted interventions.

“I have seen an income increase through farming. I have seen change through farming,” said Rachel Mwangi, the sub-county agriculture officer of the Kiambu County government, while speaking of the impact of the VBAs in her region. 

The situation is replicated all around Africa in regions where the VBA program is operational. In Nigeria’s Kaduna State, for example, since 2018 the VBAs have helped 389,385 farm families increase their productivity through the adoption of recommended improved seed varieties and good agronomic practices.

This has contributed to an increase in maize production from 2.0 metric tons/hectare to 4.04 metric tons/hectare, rice from 2.0 metric tons/hectare to 4.14 metric tons/hectare, and soybean from 0.9 metric tons/hectare to 2.5 metric tons/hectare. Additionally, the extension worker-to-farmer ratio has decreased from 1:5,600 to 1:450.

Across Africa, the VBAs are selected for the role in consultation with other farmers. They are mostly super farmers, who are well trusted by their communities.

After recruitment and assessment of farmers’ needs, the VBAs are trained on different agronomic aspects, including the use of earlier-maturing, drought-tolerant varieties; improved placement of livestock manure; improved row/planting hole spacing and the correct placement of planting and topdressing fertilizers.

Such practices, which result in deeper root growth and earlier crop maturity, enable farmers to produce more under conditions of low and poorly-distributed rainfall and late-season drought.

The VBAs are also linked to input companies to promote seeds of improved crop varieties and fertilizers together with good agricultural practices. They often end up as vendors of such inputs at the village level, making them a practical link for the last-mile delivery of agricultural technologies to farmers. 

Today, at least 35% of AGRA-trained VBAs have commercialized aspects of their roles, including the sale of inputs such as seeds and fertilizer. This is in addition to monetizing other services, such as aggregation of farmers’ produce, and work outside AGRA’s focus, which includes sale of vegetable seeds and agroforestry tree seedlings.

“Such progress beyond initial support,” said AGRA president Dr. Agnes Kalibata, “confirms the VBA model to be a sustainable path to inclusive agricultural transformation in Africa that leads to better incomes for farmers and food security for all.”

“The VBAs are delivering agronomic advice, linking farmers to critical information on inputs and markets. They are also now introducing farming families to nutritious foods and better incomes,” Dr. Kalibata said.

The VBAs proved critical during lockdown, when they served as the best source of agricultural information and market advice. AGRA ensured continuity in the delivery of extension services in the COVID-19 period by linking to the VBAs through online platforms, giving them constant training on how to respond to various farmer issues. The VBAs then delivered this knowledge to farmers for sustained, increased production.

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