As we continue with investigation into the state of agriculture, which is the nation’s economic backbone, CHARLES MPAKA establishes that there are too many cooks spoiling the broth of Malawi’s extension services and government admits multiplicity of providers has been achieved at a huge cost to Malawi’s agriculture.

The state of agriculture extension services in Malawi is of the kind where too many cooks, overseen by a hugely laid-back master chef called Government, have only made the agriculture soup taste awful, we can report.  

And the principal chef himself has tasted the broth; and he is not entirely approving of it.   

“The success story is that there are so many players providing agriculture extension and advisory services.

“However, multiplicity of service providers has been achieved at a very high cost to government,” said Ministry of Agriculture’s spokesperson, Gracian Lungu.

The Emasculation

Under the influence of the stormy Structural Adjustment Programmes (SEPs) of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other sweeping policies of the 90s, government eased control of the agriculture extension services, scaling down recruitment and funding while opening doors for non-state actors to fill the space.

Funding patterns over the years demonstrate how government has abdicated its role of ensuring efficient agriculture extension service system in the country.

Over the years, government has poured mammoth funding to that vote-buying scheme of the politicians: the fertiliser subsidy programme.

But in the process, sections such as extension services which is the bedrock of agricultural productivity in Malawi have suffered massive public underfunding.    

In illustration, one study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) found that between 2007 and 2012, government spent 52 percent of the agriculture budget on fertiliser subsidies while a paltry one percent went to extension services.

According to our findings, budget details for other years are as bad in terms of government’s treatment of extension services. For example, in the 2012/13 financial year, government allocated K68 billion to the agriculture sector. Of this allocation, fertiliser subsidy wolfed K40.6 billion — while extension services got only K1.08 billion.

Our analysis of allocations to extension services shows that in some financial years in the past 17 years, between 50 and 90 percent of the extension service budget share was consumed by salaries.

This left only funding scraps for operations of a section that is naturally the coalface of everything Malawi seeks to achieve agriculturally through animal health and livestock development, agriculture planning services, agriculture research services, crops development, fisheries, irrigation development and land resources conservation.

Over two months, we have investigated the state of extension services affairs in Lilongwe, Machinga, Zomba, Kasungu and Dowa, alongside examining records for 20 of the 28 districts of the country.

From dilapidated extension workers offices and houses, to broken down infrastructure such as dip tanks and a community of workers beaten down hard by lack of resources, lack of motivation and workload resulting from staff shortage, it is largely a soulless work for many of them. 

One worker in Dowa told us: “It’s very dull work, punishment more or less.

“I have been in the system for 21 years. I see the decay worsening every day but I can bear with it only because I am retiring soon.  

“But the younger generation can’t take it. They have degrees. They are leaving this drudgery for better-resourced jobs in NGOs whose interests aren’t Government’s,” he said.

Democratization Chaos

Government’s easing of control of the once-vibrant sector was supposedly meant to make it more robust and efficient.

But, while there are now indeed many providers of extension services which should mean easy access, the decay is profound. 

We have found that non-state actors, well-funded and more efficient, are charming public extension workers to their fold, further weakening the public extension services system.

On one of our visits to a district in Eastern region, we coincidently found a District Agriculture Development Officer (Dado) complaining that he could not find any extension worker to assist a farmer whose three dairy cows had suddenly fallen ill overnight.

“They are all gone to a workshop in Liwonde,” said the Dado, resignedly.

“This is what I go through. Very often, I find all my staff have gone to workshops and projects by NGOs because there, they get allowances. This means farmers that need their services go unassisted,” he said.

The district has just a third of the required extension service workers for over 200,000 farming families. The Dado complained:

“I get K9 million to spend on travel allowances for my staff, fix their dilapidated offices and houses in the villages, maintain the only vehicle we have…. K9 million for three months!”  

In addition, all the 28 extension workers we interviewed in this investigation are based at the district headquarters, away from the rural areas where most of the millions of small-scale farmers are located and where living conditions are poor for the extension staff.

An extension worker in Lilongwe challenged: “You will not find many of us staying among the farmers in the villages. We go and come; mostly on NGO assignments.”

We also established that the multiplicity of players has become a source of confusion to farmers on agricultural methods. Farmers complained that they get contrasting advice on some practices.

“From experience, extension services are useful but these days everyone who comes is telling us different things and we look like we are stuck in a forest,” said Agness Njiragoma, 58, a maize farmer in Mayaka in Zomba district.

District records show that Zomba alone, for example, has more 17 non-state actors providing agriculture extension services.

‘Shallow and Inefficient’

Development economist Felix Lombe said NGO-led extension is often inefficient and shallow in scope and coverage.

“In fact, it only succeeds in overstretching and burdening the same public extension system. You may want to know that many NGOs rely on same government agents,” he told us.

He said NGOs do not have the full technical capacity in extension services, which is why they have introduced untested methods often imported elsewhere and imposed by donors.

“That’s why today, there are too many untested technologies dumped on farmers by NGOs, leading to confusion and contradictions on ground.

“Since NGOs have money, they ultimately succeed in confusing and contradicting what government would have loved to do,” said Lombe who is also Chief Executive Officer for Africa Institute for Corporate Citizenship (AICC).

He further argued that even private companies that are involved in out-grower schemes do not invest in extension services beyond what benefits them.

He therefore urged government “to be bold enough to invest in extension services without being bullied by IMF and World Bank on the size of public administration.”

Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson admitted that the democratization of the sector has brought coordination challenges and lowered standards of extension services.

But Lungu said government has strategies to address these anomalies.

“These strategies include supervision and backstopping district councils on a more regular basis to help them implement the Decentralised Agriculture Extension and Advisory Services System which has clear guidelines of ensuring order and provision of quality services,” he said.