Impact of COVID-19 Agriculture Extension Services: Implications for female farmers

The agricultural sector in Nepal employs around 80% of the female labor force (Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2019Joshi 2018).

Moreover, rural out-migration of men — largely for work abroad opportunities — has inadvertently enhanced female participation and decision-making in agriculture.

Female farmers are now increasingly assuming responsibility for agriculture-related decision-making and prioritization of crops and key farm and marketing tasks (World Bank 2018Maharjan, Bauer and Knerr 2017).

Gender plays an important role in determining access to agricultural information and extension; however, gender-responsive extension services continue to be largely inadequate in Nepal and South Asia (FAO 2019).

According to the Post Disaster Need Assessment (PDNA) report published by the National Planning Commission of Nepal, after the 2015 Nepal earthquake, only around 31% of female farmers had received extension services, in comparison to 69% of their male counterparts.

The reasons for this could be linked to the limited numbers of female extension workers working in Nepal, the limited recognition of women as farmers resulting in their being left out by extension service providers and other prevalent socio-cultural factors that restrict women’s participation in extension activities and events (FAO 2019).

As rural Nepal reels from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and losses of jobs and incomes — especially income from remittance — a growing proportion of rural households are more likely to rely on income from agriculture.

Boosting agricultural productivity and maximizing returns from agriculture becomes even more important, given the current circumstances.

In this context, agricultural extension services have a critical role to play by providing timely and accurate information to farmers — female and male alike — toward enhancing productivity and ensuring food security.

Considering the crucial role played by female farmers in an agrarian economy, such as Nepal, and remaining cognizant of the inequalities that limit women’s participation in agricultural extension activities and programs, there is an even greater need for developing innovative approaches to enhance women’s access to agricultural extension.

USAID-supported studies in Nepal, conducted by the Gender, Climate Change and Nutrition Integration Initiative (GCAN) and the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA)[1], find that around one-third of farmers (34% male and 29% female) reported unavailability of their regular sources of agricultural extension information since COVID-19-related lockdown[2] was first announced in the country

Prior to the lockdown, agricultural input retailers were the most important source of information for farmers, including both male and female farmers (Figure 1).

More than twice the proportion of men relied on government extension agents or officials from Agriculture Knowledge Centers (AKC) compared to women[3].

Such gender-based differences further reiterate that female farmers have limited access to formal sources of extension (AKC)[4] compared to men. 

However, the lockdown — which is being eased considerably — has nonetheless resulted in changes with respect to information access for both male and female farmers (Figure 1).

Information sources that involved in-person interactions, such as agricultural input dealers and meetings convened by self-help groups, cooperatives and other farmer groups, have seen a decline during the lockdown.

At the same time, an increasing proportion of farmers have been noted to depend on their own knowledge gained from experience (traditional knowledge) and information from family members or neighbors during this period.

Overall, a considerably higher proportion of men, as compared to women, continue to utilize government sources, mass media and field trainings for agricultural information, despite the lockdown[5].

Figure 1: Agriculture extension sources: Before and after the COVID-19 lockdown.

Moreover, findings from the study also indicate serious concerns over quality of agricultural information received since the lockdown due to COVID-19 (Figure 2)[6].

Around 50% of men and women shared that the overall quality of information they received from various sources has worsened since March.

Additionally, around 56% of all farmers feel that their productivity has suffered, as they were unable to access timely and quality agricultural information during this phase.

In an agriculturally driven economy, such as Nepal, inability to access credible and timely information by farmers could have serious consequences, including increased inefficiencies and reduced productivity of farming operations.

Figure 2: Quality of extension sources: After the COVID-19 lockdown.

With the onset of monsoon, farmers have begun paddy cultivation; rice is the most important staple crop and accounts for nearly 50% of the country’s agricultural production (Tripathi, Bhandari and Ladha 2019).

Given that farmers are already struggling with limited availability of inputs and labor (Bhusal 2020), they are in dire need of information on appropriate tools, crop management techniques and appropriate technologies to address such challenges.

Remote communication mechanisms, such as radio, television, social media and telecommunication systems could prove helpful in addressing this information gap, also adhering to the norms of social distancing.

While exploring these channels for effectively reaching out to farmers, it is imperative to bear in mind the crucial role played by women and the gender-based disparities that prevent female farmers from accessing agriculture-related information.

Taking cognizance of the gender-based inequalities faced by women, there is a need for developing innovative gender-sensitive extension approaches aimed at enhancing women’s access to agricultural extension and education opportunities.

This need has become even more urgent since March 2020, as rural Nepal reels from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and imminent loss of remittance incomes, especially from the Middle East.

As we strive toward strengthening resilience of smallholder farmers and vulnerable communities, the need to ensure access to quality information has become even more vital.

The analysis and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors. We thank the enumerators at the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS) and the respondents for providing their time for these phone surveys. This study was funded by USAID under CSISA and GCAN, with support from the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions and Markets (PIM) led by IFPRI. The contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the CGIAR Research Program on PIM.

References

Bhusal, A. 2020. “Agriculture and COVID-19: Problems and Opportunities.” Accessed from https://ypard.net/2020-06-03/agriculture-and-covid-19-problems-and-opportunities.

FAO. 2019. “Country Gender Assessment of Agriculture and the Rural Sector in Nepal.” U.N. Complex: Pulchowk, Nepal.

Joshi, A. 2018. “Women in Agriculture.” The Kathmandu Post. Accessed from https://kathmandupost.com/opinion/2018/08/02/women-in-agriculture.

Maharjan, A., S. Bauer, and B. Knerr. 2017. “Do Rural Women Who Stay Behind Benefit from Male Out-Migration? A Case Study in the Hills of Nepal.” Gender, Technology and Development 16 (1): 95-123.

National Planning Commission (NPC). 2015. “Post Disaster Need Assessment.” Volume B, Sector Report. National Planning Commission, Government of Nepal, Kathmandu.

Tripathi, B.P., H.N. Bhandari, and J.K. Ladha. 2019. “Rice Strategy for Nepal.” ACTA Scientific Agriculture 3 (2): 171-180.

World Bank. 2018. “Male Outmigration and Women’s Work and Empowerment in Agriculture: The Case of Nepal and Senegal.” World Bank: Washington, D.C.


[1] The study was conducted by IFPRI with 759 farmers (225 male and 534 female respondents) from the Dang district of Province 5 in Nepal between late June to mid-July 2020 to understand the impact of COVID-19.

[2] The lockdown has been relaxed from June 15 onwards. In its current form, businesses are permitted to operate following rules of social distancing and private vehicles are allowed with passenger limitations. However, airports and educational and religious institutions continue to remain closed, with some restrictions on public transportation and vehicle movement between regions.

[3] The difference in results reported by men and women are significant, at 95% confidence interval.

[4] Following the introduction of the new federal structure in Nepal, formal agriculture extension service delivery system is in a transitionary phase adjusting to the new institutional and policy context. AKCs have replaced the erstwhile District Agriculture Development Office (DADO). However, for the respondents, Junior Technical Assistant (JTA) and officials from the ward office are perceived as government extension agents.

[5] The difference in results reported by men and women are significant, at 95% confidence interval.

[6] The total number of male and female respondents is lower for this indicator (as compared to the previous graph) since it was not asked to those respondents who chose traditional knowledge as their extension source before COVID-19 and those who did not know whether the earlier extension sources were available after COVID-19.

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