For nearly 30 years now, Malawi’s extension services – the frontline of all that Malawi seeks to achieve in and through agriculture – has been spiralling downwards.  

Agnes Njiragoma, 58, testifies.

A small-scale maize farmer in Muhilili village which is under Ngwelero Extension Planning Area (EPA) in Zomba district, Njiragoma says she has seen both “good times” and “bad times” of extension services in Malawi.

On good days, she says, farmers did not have to go hunting for an extension service worker.

“They were staying here in the area. They were readily available. They came to you on their own, unannounced and regularly,” she says.  

Today, these workers can hardly be found in the community.

“They stay in town centres and they rarely come to give us advice. So we farm the way we know,” she laments.

Malawi’s extension services have been collapsing under the weight of the infamous Structural Adjustment Programme of the World Bank and IMF. Introduced in the 90s, the economic reform policy pushed governments around the world to cut down sizes of public administration and open the doors to non-state actors into sectors such as extension services.

Since then, government has reduced funding and recruitment for areas such as agriculture and forestry extension services.

Spokesperson for the Ministry of Agriculture, Gracian Lungu, says the thinking behind this policy reorientation was that it would lead to a diversity of extension service providers in the field, enabling farmers the freedom of choice in accessing agricultural knowledge.

The multiplicity of players in the sector is evident. In Zomba district, for example, there are more than 17 non-state actors complementing government in delivery of agriculture extension services, the District Social and Economic Profile (2017 – 2022) shows.

This diversity has not necessarily improved extension services delivery, according to Njiragoma.

She claims in, over the past 10 years, she has not seen farmers in the area receiving comprehensive and coordinated agricultural advice as it used to happen.

Sometime back, she says, one NGO went to the area and told the people about nutrition. It was a three-year project. Another NGO also went and trained some farmers in conservation farming under a two-year project.

“This has been the trend. There is nothing consistent. One comes and teaches people what they want and they go. The information is inadequate, sometimes conflicting and everything is done in a hurry,” she says.

In Kabanga village, Traditional Authority Chakhaza in Dowa, Flossy Kubwalo, a smallholder goat and maize farmer under Madisi Extension Planning Area, believes she would have made good progress in the past 14 years if there was an efficient and reliable extension advice system. 

A Dairy Farmer

She started raising goats as a member of a cooperative formed by a project by some non-governmental organisation. That NGO was providing advice on goat farming.

“But the project lasted just three years. We did not have adequate knowledge on goat management by the time the project ended such that when our goats fell sick, we did not know what to do.   

“We tried to seek the help at the agriculture office [EPA]. But we were told they did not have staff to come and help us. So, we lost all the seven goats,” she says.

Kubwalo also grows maize. But she says she does not apply any new knowledge in her farming because she does not have any. Hardly do extension service providers under the Madisi EPA cover the area.

“At one point, we were told we would be getting the advice through a lead farmer here. But we realised he needs advice himself,” she says.

That is, the plurality of providers has not necessarily led to the output which government expected as it adopted the policy. As Lungu admits, the multiplicity of players in the field has been achieved at a very high and unwanted cost to government.

“The unwanted costs comprise the lowering down of standards of extension and advisory services,” he says.

According to Lungu, quality has declined because many non-state extension services providers lack professional capacity.

In our visits to Zomba, Lilongwe, Dowa and Kasungu, we also found that the non-state actors are drawing the same public extension workers to implement their projects. This deprives the public system of the workers, to the disadvantage of farmers that are not direct targets of the projects.

Ordinarily, the assortment of players should have meant that as many smallholder farmers as possible access agricultural advice. But records show the contrary. For example, the Fifth Integrated Household Survey 2020 Report found that in the 2018/19 farming season, only 13.9 percent of farming households in Malawi received advice on composting, 11.5 percent on new seed varieties, 9.3 percent on fertiliser use, 7.8 percent on irrigation and 7.5 percent on pest control.

In addition, NGO money has distorted extension service spirit, government observes. The field is replete with cases where organisations buy participation of farmers in the implementation of their projects.

Because of this culture, farmers are now demanding compensation for participating in agriculture extension interventions.

The compound effect of this is that it has eroded the sense of commitment and the self-help spirit and resulted in lack of both ownership and sustainability of agriculture development interventions in Malawi.

According to government, all this is due to the fact that NGOs are accountable more to their financiers than clients or farmers.

“Some service providers buy participation of farmers to outcompete others in terms of patronage of their activities so they can show-off their financiers for more resources,” says government in the National Agriculture Extension and Advisory Services Strategy (2020 – 2025).

A roadside market of agriculture products

At the heart of all this chaos is government’s own failure to effectively coordinate the sector. An NGO official in Zomba told Malawi News of “weak structures and uninterested officials at councils”.

“In the end,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, “we are the more influential players in a field where we are only guests. And yes, we have our own interests because our bosses are different.”   

Lungu says this is partly because there has been a lack of clear guidelines at district councils regarding the way non-state actors are supposed to implement their projects and programmes.

“This has given rise to non-transparent practices which end up frustrating agriculture extension services,” he says.

But now government is intent on arresting the chaos. Among its 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 is basically a toolkit of how extension services are supposed to be delivered in the communities.

The other strategy on the cards is development of policy instruments that are legally binding and enforceable for the sake of quality assurance in provision of extension services.

But until then, whenever that will be, the more than 4 million of small-scale farmers in Malawi are stuck in the giddying whirlpool of democratized extension service provision – to the further damage of agriculture, the bastion of Malawi’s economy.