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Counties assign ‘digital’ extension officers up to 10,000 farmers each

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By Jolene Njambi

Declining budgets and changing technology have changed the way agricultural extension officers are working in Kenya, but are seeing them spread so thinly that their work is now entirely demand-driven: they only get to the farmers that ask them for help.

According to Mr. Mungera who has worked for over 30 years as an extension officer in Machakos County, in the early 1990s, extension officers started work as early as 8:00 am, and ended the day at around 5:00pm, but that has now changed.

“Today, our budget has been cut by both the national and county governments. We no longer get transport and field work allowances as we used to, resulting to low motivation among us,” said Mungera.

Thus, despite the rising demand for their services by farmers, and the growth in the commercial farming support needed by the country’s agricultural sector, officers have been forced to prioritise their activities from the most to the least urgent tasks.

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In this, a typical day for most extension officers begins with about 20 to 50 calls from farmers on matters that require their attention. They then take some few minutes to schedule their daily and weekly engagements based on the inquiries.“We have devised a demand-driven system of offering our services.Farmers make their requests to us, then we proceed to discuss the concerns before moving out for the assignments. This means we get to the field even as late as at noon, something that has been negatively affecting our service delivery.”

Mungera’s description is supported by the 2017 Guidelines and Standards for Agricultural Extension & Advisory Services by the Ministry of Agriculture, which state that there are constraints impacting on the experts’ service delivery, including low funding.

It is because of this that many officers have resorted to using their mobile phones to sort out rampant pest and diseases concerns from farmers, further reducing the time they spend with farmers.

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Today, they ask farmers to send pictures of their affected plants accompanied with some few explanations via WhatsApp for feedback, diagnosis and follow up advice on what the farmer should do to get rid of the problem and future prevention mechanisms.

For the remaining concerns, an interactive face-to-face session is what is usually needed. Farmers, who get his contacts from the MCA or assistant chiefs, are encouraged to organise themselves into groups of at least 20 and make appointments for the day and time he will meet them.

According to Mungera, he serves 15,000 to 20,000 farmers, a responsibility he shares with only one other extension officer for an area that covers 6,043 square kilometers in total .Over his 30 years of experience, he has seen allowances and benefits that were once at extension officers’ disposal erased from their employment package.

“Allowances would be handed out as per government job groups, meaning a person with greater responsibilities would receive higher allowances. I was eligible for a minimum allowance of Sh1000 as well as fuelled cars to transport me to my area of training. This is not the case anymore.”

For Ms. Kobo who has been an extension officer since 1986 in the lower eastern part of the county, she oversees around 1000 farmers over a total area of 5,283 square kilometres.

“Under the devolved government there is an assumption that you reside in the area in which you work and therefore transport allowance is unnecessary. We now personally bear these costs,” she said.

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Generally, it may cost around Sh200 on average to get to their area of training, a cost which covers a distance of around five to eight kilometres. For Kobo, despite residing in her area of work, getting to fields and farms costs her an average of Sh400 a day. Where she has to travel a further distance like to Vota or Machakos central, it winds up costing her at least Sh600 a day.

For her, training sessions usually commence from 10 am and last about two hours. Kobo explains that requested topics are usually season based, and depend on the stage of growth of the crops in that area. For instance, in Mua, it is presently harvesting season, which means most of her training is now centred around advising farmers on post-harvest loss prevention and management, proper storage techniques, pests and aflatoxin prevention and how to market their produce.

During planting season, she will teach on measures to take for land preparation before planting, acquisition of certified varieties of seeds, proper input and manure application as well as on making hills and terraces for planting. This is followed by sessions on timely spraying, weeding and proper fertiliser application. However, the entire year will see her training on soil and water conservation measures, demonstrations on how to set up kitchen gardens, construction of drip irrigation kits, crop husbandry practices, pest disease and control mechanisms, input acquisition subsidies, and setting up of greenhouses.

There is also assistance with soil and water conservation techniques that need equipment such as a line level tool, a tape measure, flip chart and masking tapes.

“The government caters for any equipment we need. In this way, our work has been made much easier,” said Mungera.

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After field work

Most of the time these officers are required to report back to their officers after field work to write reports that are sent to the higher offices as information about the concerns of the growers. They also use this time to set up future appointments.

Every fortnight, extension officers attend meetings with the chief or assistant chief where they are expected to give an account of their weekly activities.

“I inform farmers who reach out to me that I will be unavailable on every second and last Friday of the month. We used to have these meetings every week but with the emergence of COVID-19, we had to reduce our meeting frequency,” said Kobo. She adds that since the pandemic, her daily schedule has seen a significant disruption that has led to more and more infrequent trainings.

“My training sessions have also been limited to only five people per group and must be done within 45 minutes or less.”

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