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Farmers rely heavily on public and private agricultural extension services. They receive more than half of agriculture related services through public extension agencies. Private companies provide limited services, largely for the promotion of their goods and services, making the public sector a primary source of agricultural services for farmers. Yet centralised, top-down extension services are inadequate, hindering farmers from accessing and using the services.
In this blog post, we present the work of the Local Agri-business Network (LAN)  project in Bangladesh that facilitated the improvement of public extension services for farmers, in particular smallholder and poor farmers, through establishing better access to information and improved technologies, as well as to quality input and output markets.
Farmers improve yield, sales and income if extension services are accessible, understood and acted upon. In Bangladesh, the geographical distance to government extension offices at sub-district level costs farmers a lot to travel for services. In addition, smallholder and poor farmers have the fear of being rejected by government extension offices due to lack of confidence, and this restricts them to approach government extension offices.
The main public agencies entrusted to provide services have limited staff and resources at their disposal; officers that have time and resources are often involved in other activities unrelated to an extension service: clerical, statistical and other tasks assigned by higher authorities. There has been, in short, both resource deficiency and inefficiency. Actual services are also given to groups and bigger and richer farmers. Smallholder and poor farmers complain, but there is no formal or informal mechanism of getting feedback to services provided by extension agencies.
Bipul Bain, fish farmer, Pirojpur District
At the heart of the problem has been underperforming or lack of key functions such as coordination/networking and advocacy for simple, low-cost service delivery. Public extension agencies did not have professional interaction with other actors, mainly private sector enterprises (e.g. traders), who are closer to farmers.
LAN could have attempted to tackle each of the agricultural extension service constraints directly (e.g. funding extension agencies, hiring consultants to provide services to smallholder and poor farmers, etc.). These would have required substantial human and financial resources which the project did not have. Even if successful, the interventions could lead to one-time gains, but the process of change would likely have stopped when the project ended.
Rather the project intervened to improve how public extension agencies provide services to their rural constituents by enhancing a demand-driven, participatory and pluralistic extension service. The model had three main objectives: (a) to increase outreach and coverage, (b) to reactivate farmers’ groups formed by other training programmes, and (c) to introduce greater responsiveness towards farmers’ demands for extension services. The project developed a strategy to boost informal networks between traders’ associations and farmers’ groups, and facilitate local level multi-stakeholders dialogue platforms termed as Public Private Initiatives (PPIs).
Md. Sharowar Hossain Bachchu, Salta Traders’ Association
The project encouraged traders’ associations to better engage with public extension agencies. As the traders are based in the sub-districts (upazilas), they usually have good relations with the extension agencies. Similarly, as individual private players within different sub-sectors (e.g. fish, vegetables, livestock), they also have good levels of interaction with farmers – for buying and selling products. The model taps into the potential for traders’ associations to become a “conduit” through which groups of farmers (samities) would be able to reach for agricultural extension services.
The model assumed benefits and incentives for all stakeholders: farmers, traders’ associations and public extension agencies. Farmers would have better access to extension services and quality inputs, as well as better marketing of their produce. Traders’ associations would expand their business by selling inputs and buying products. And public extension agencies could reach additional farmers for better coordinated and quality services.
Did this actually happen? The model improved institutionalised links between traders, farmers’ groups and public extension service agencies. It enabled services to flow more freely and to greater numbers of farmers who used trade associations for troubleshooting, as well as a reliable source of accessing and advocating services through public extension agencies.
Shah Jalal Khandakar, District Livestock Officer Nilphamari
The model offered farmers the opportunity to interact on both a formal basis (e.g. classroom or field-based instruction, meetings) and an informal basis (e.g. sharing of information, tips, and recommendations at shops, agreeing on guaranteed buyer schemes, sharing commodity price information). Farmers have been able to draw knowledge including on areas which public extension agencies had not previously planned for.
Traders’ associations assessed the demands of farmers and organised capacity building events with the support from the public extension agencies. The model improved the interactions of farmers with market actors and public sector agencies. In terms of income, for example in the vegetable sub-sector, the average net income of farmers (per 0.4 acres of land) was 235 Bangladeshi Taka, which increased to 330 Taka after training. The model was to a higher extent pro-poor, as 75% of the farmers were smallholder and poor, cultivating between 0.05–2.5 acre of land. More than 322,000 farmers were reached through 178 traders’ associations.
Hira Akter, farmer, Khulna district
Traders increased their customer base for improved revenues, either through the selling of inputs or having higher quantities of goods (better performance of backward and forward linkages). This also created additional opportunities for horizontal linkages and business dealings among different traders’ associations. Traders’ associations represented farmers and this strengthened their relation with the public extension agencies.
By collaborating with private sector enterprises like traders, public extension agencies were able to reach much larger numbers of farmers, including those who are poor and live in remote areas; public extension agencies were proud to show these figures in their statistics and reports! They also were able to efficiently use their resources by delegating easy tasks to traders’ associations (e.g. formation of farmers’ groups, awareness-raising events, etc.), while enabling the agencies to deliver demand-driven, specialised and regular services.
The model brought about a shift in the behaviour of key actors by ensuring the business incentives of all the parties involved. Such a success essentially came from the design of the project by avoiding past mistakes of a highly supply driven form of extension services: directly organising farmers and traders and flooding public extension services with grants. In short, the project throughout its implementation asked the critical question of “how will the system (of extension services) will continue to work better after LAN exits?”
The PPIs are managed on a non-binding and a non-formal tripartite agreement among public extension agencies, traders’ association and farmers’ groups at sub-district level. The extension officers or the traders are not officially bound to perform the duty of the PPIs or are not to be held responsible in the event of non-performance or underperformance of the initiatives. In other words, execution of the initiatives is not part of any official documents/tasks of extension officers, so with their transfer from one area to another, incoming officers may not be in a position to continue the services. This puts into question the sustainability of the initiatives. The project learnt that for increased success of the model, it is important to have formal Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the public extension agencies to get field level extension officers involved hosting sectoral PPIs.
In addition, channelling funds from private sector companies and traders is a major challenge. Representatives of private sectors companies at the sub-district level are not always ready in allocating funds for the initiatives which results in less availability of sponsorship from private companies. There were cases where some registered companies with “unverified” track record joined the initiatives through providing funding. Public extension agencies cannot bar private companies from funding the initiatives, whereas such private companies, with their low-quality inputs, could pose risks (e.g. unsustainable production) and cast negative impacts on PPIs. This suggests the need to broaden the definition of sustainability by focusing on environmental sustainability in addition to institutional/economic sustainability.
 The LAN project was implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation as a mandate from Katalyst, a multi-donor market development initiative implemented by Swisscontact
 100 Bangladeshi Taka = 1.2 USD
Madhab Chandra Das, an agriculturist, is trained in Bangladesh and abroad on business administration and market access for sustainable development. Currently, he works for Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation Bangladesh as Project Manager. He was the Team Leader of LAN from March 2014 to November 2016. Before that he served as Project Coordinator and Deputy Project Coordinator of Improving Local Government Services Programme and Shamriddhi projects, respectively. Apart from Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, he worked for Intercooperation and CARE International.