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Why does the transfer of Agriculture Technology by Line Ministries fail so regularly?

A much over-looked reality of rural development initiatives anywhere is that when technical changes (such as attempts to improve crop yields) are introduced, to be successful and sustainable, they  must be preceded by comprehensive community engagement intended to ensure those communities are prepared, enthusiastic and able to take up those technologies.  How many apparently sound rural projects fail because they were implemented by a technical agency which may have excellent technical staff but with no or little clue how to sustainably engage with their target beneficiaries? And how can this apparently obvious failure continue?

In part, this may be due to a lack of extension skills among front line agriculture staff – a skill set which is very different to pure technical skills – but also because front line agriculture staff are either too remote from the communities in which they operate or simply don’t bother to make the effort to try and understand how best to engage with their community.  Other reasons include: (i) failures by the leadership of agriculture agencies to measure the outputs and outcomes of their frontline staff; and (ii) significant absences of capable NGOs who can work with rural communities to assist them to plan and implement their own development growth, including adoption of improved agriculture technologies.

So, what to do? Firstly, technical agencies such as agriculture ministries should be better equipped to approach beneficiaries from a comprehensive community development perspective – either via their own staff or by actively engaging with NGOs who do have the relevant skills. Secondly, project designers should be encouraged to build community development into apparently technical projects. This will require funding agencies to recognize that a wider range of skills are needed on design teams and that more time may be needed on design missions. Finally, better rural development outcomes will be assured if governments and development agencies recognize that good quality rural development NGOs have an important role to play in pursuit of improved outcomes for rural communities.

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Our recent experiences in the Pacific and our on-going project in Tonga have shown that an NGO can be better suited than a government staff person to working with communities. But, from what colleagues and farmers are saying these days perhaps the private sector is just as well suited, if not better.

And, is it good community organisation that is what's needed to introduce technical change, or merely a motivated advocate? Whether its an NGO working with a community or a seed supplier doing a pitch to a producer, I suspect that its having a self-interested motive in engagement that makes them more successful than the line ministry.

The reputation of the NGO (and maybe its revenue stream) depends on how well it mobilizes communities, the seed salesman's profit depends on how well he convinces the farmer to make the technical change (ie buy and use the seed), And both, but especially the private sector operator, have a real interest in building a sustainable relationship with the farmer.

Maybe 'having a clue' about how to engage with a farmer for a person working in a rural area - whether from the ministry, the NGO, or the fertilizer company - will depend most of all on what they are likely to get out of that engagement for themselves.

Posted on 4/4/13 1:24 PM.

Yes, I agree that the private sector has a role in delivery of good technical innovations to rural communities. But, there are clear areas of natural advantage and the private sector can make really positive contributions in the supply of inputs such as improved variety seeds or seedlings. But despite this, how often does government shut the private sector out?

So the first challenge is to encourage governments to recognize the positive partnership potential that the private sector can bring. That starts with mutual trust.

Posted on 4/7/13 8:06 AM in reply to Chase Palmeri.

You raise some interesting points, especially about the private sector and project-designers.

First, getting the private sector involved in agriculture probably requires a little more than mutual trust – the first challenge is to have a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities of governmental (and non-governmental) organizations and the private sector and putting these into practice. All too often ministries of agriculture ignore their role as investor in public goods and stray into areas that are much better handled by private sector investors, much to the detriment of small farmers. Ministries of agriculture, for example, may well be able to advise farmers on how best to bump up their productivity but they are not very good at advising farmers on which crops will be the most profitable. For this you need to get agri-businesses engaged – not just input suppliers, but also traders, processors, exporters, wholesalers and retailers.

Secondly, project designers need to spend more time and effort working with (may be even in) the private sector, and this is where new and innovate skills are required. Project-designers need to do more than just calculate hypothetical marginal returns – they need to identify partners in the private sector, even begin to broker deals, which bring real returns to small farmers. This is probably new and unfamiliar territory but one which is potentially very re-warding not only for project-designers, but also donors and of course small farmers.

Posted on 4/10/13 4:56 PM in reply to Tony Ryan.

Tony, I agree with what you say about line agencies failing to effective transfer technologies to farmers.

I started my career as an extension worker for the Department of Agriculture in Zambia so have seen both sides of the issue. This response is from the view of agricultural (crop) extension agencies - agencies for livestock, fish and forests are, at least in some ways, different, usually having somewhat greater regulatory functions and, for livestock, control of communicable diseases.

First of all, line agencies lack resources. After paying salaries, there is little left over for any operations. The response of donor-funded projects was to provide funds for these operating costs. But results were still disappointing. It seems line agencies were too busy with administration, with routine activities such as collecting statistics and making crop estimates, supplying inputs, running subsidy schemes and so on, to implement projects or provide farmers with technical advice.

The "Training and Visit" (T&V) system promoted by the World Bank and other agencies (including IFAD I guess) in the 1980's and 1990's was an attempt to just focus on technology transfer alone – but was discredited for the reasons given below.

First of all, extension services are not reaching farmers. Their staff are often distant (field posts are often vacant or staff are absent from their posts), and not known to farmers. Staff are inadequately motivated and monitored - being in the public sector, there is little attention given to outcomes. That is not to say that there are not some well motivated and effective staff - but they often end up in private sector

Another problem is that extension services are often asked to disseminate poor technologies that do not really benefit farmers. Some (but not all) good new technologies will rapidly spread with no extension effort at all. Other good technologies are not adopted as inputs not available. Some new technologies (such as machinery) are hardly touched by extension agencies.

Extension staff often lack the skills they need. Their knowledge of technology may not be up to date, and they lack communication skills. It is apparent that the private sector can be far ahead, although they may not be working much with small farmers. Extension staff often seem to work in isolation from research agencies and technical support – and so do not have answers to new or complex problems (but neither may research).

In some countries these issues are well known. There have been suggestions to slim down extension services with fewer but better qualified staff, and to use mass media and other communication tools. But this is difficult as the army of extension staff can become a strong vested interest group.

The response of externally funded projects is often to hire NGOs or other agencies to deliver technical services. This can amount to a service in parallel to the public extension agencies, but with more accountability for results, and they can do well. Another alternative is to build community capacity to deliver their own services (often using NGOs to build this capacity). A problem with both these approached is post project sustainability if farmers are continue receiving services after project funding ends. This may not matter if project only aimed to introduce some specific technologies – once this done it can pack up and go home. Community service providers (and the private sector) can also sell some services to farmers and so become self-sustaining. These can include veterinary services, machinery contracting and sales of inputs. But the range of technical advice provided along with these sales will be limited. Sometimes governments may want to deliver these services free or at subsidised rates, so difficult it becomes difficult for community or private providers to charge fees.

Sometimes line agencies do somewhat better if use project funds to hire extra staff to deliver project services (such as training and follow up advice). But this amounts to much the same as hiring NGOs or community resource people, and line agencies have limitations in managing these extra staff.

So what is the answer? As is often the case, there is no single answer. More can be done to work with the private sector, who may be more interested in small farmers than we often believe. The role and capacity of local level service providers can be also expanded. Finally there is a need for a high quality and really capable public extension service, which can support rather than duplicate community and private sector service providers.

Posted on 4/12/13 9:22 PM.

Interesting points Ed. My eye caught your last comment - that "private sector ... may be more interested in small farmers than we often believe". The private sector - through input suppliers, local traders, processors, small wholesalers and retailers - are presumably pretty interested in small farmers. But I guess you are referring to the larger, often international, brand-owning agribusinesses. Their interest in small farmers seems to be riding on the back of the CSR movement - some are interested, and serious, others are not. But anyway, isn't the role - may be on of the main roles - of governments and donors to use their funds to encourage private investment? There are some initiatives around that use donor money to leverage private investments - the various challenge funds are an example, but also some in-project initiatives that leverage quite large sums of private money - from banks and businesses.

Posted on 4/15/13 3:58 PM in reply to Edward Mallorie.


I agree we should do all we can to encourage private investment, but it is often difficult for government project implementing agencies to work in partnership with the private sector. There can also be problems in needing to select private sector partners via competitive tendering, and project agencies are often more comfortable working with public input supply, marketing agencies and service providers. We need to do all we can to get projects to support local input suppliers and service providers like paravets, but in some situations government policies may not even allow non-government individuals to provide such services. This is a policy issue and we need to show how such private services can work well in places where they are allowed.

We also need to do more to involve the corporate sector (although they may not really exist in the agricultural sector in smaller countries). Corporations may be interested for reasons beyond CSR. There are major international companies involved in seeds and agro-chemicals, and I made a posting on the new section of this website a month or so ago about how a major corporation is contracting small farmers in India to produce baby corn for export to Europe. Another example: a private bank supporting SHGs in India has recently been posted. The question is, how do we do more of this? Maybe we need to talk more to the private sector at all stages of the project cycle. Even if they are not actually involved in a current project, a dialogue could result in them becoming involved in a current or future project.

Posted on 4/18/13 4:40 PM in reply to Dan Vadnjal.


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