The new wave of agricultural extension and farmers’ agency

Staying connected: A farmer prepares rice seedlings at a paddy field in Cilacap in Indonesia’s central Java province. Smartphones are the easiest and most widely used tool by the country’s farmers for decision-making support on technical problems. — AFP

THE challenges and complexities of Indonesia’s food system, which is affected by unfavourable environmental conditions, climate change and price volatility, have hindered the country from achieving food security for its 270 million people.

This has again raised the issue of the role of agricultural extension in disseminating technology to farmers.

Conventional agricultural extension has traditionally focused on linear knowledge transfer.

Knowledge transfer uses a top-down approach, which implies vertical communication between extension workers and farmers, assuming extension workers as experts and farmers as trainees in a passive learning process.

This type of hierarchical relationship was considered effective in technology transfer during the Green Revolution some four decades ago.

However, given the challenges and complexities of agriculture in recent years, the traditional approach to knowledge transfer may be unable to help farming households overcome the challenges and access adequate information and technology to promote sustainable agriculture.

Agriculture is undergoing a new information and communication technology (ICT) revolution with the spread of mobile messaging, online browsing and audio/video-sharing applications.

This has created new opportunities for new forms of connectivity and information sharing, overcoming traditional limitations to knowledge transfer.

However, as 61% of Indonesian farmers are smallholders with less than 0.5ha of land, their engagement with ICT revolves around smartphone use.

Among ICT devices, smartphones are the easiest and most widely used by Indonesian farmers for decision-making support on technical problems related to pests, disease, soil fertility and the weather.

WhatsApp can be considered the most popular messaging platform for not only building farmer-to-farmer interactions but also linking farmers with larger communities, such as farmer groups and commodity associations.

Information on government programmes, new technologies, subsidies and meeting schedules are shared via WhatsApp groups.

Consultation with extension workers is also done through WhatsApp to save time.

During the pandemic, e-consultation was more convenient and safer than in-person consultation. However, many extension workers also reported being overwhelmed by the volume of messages they received outside working hours.

Online forums can reduce the burden on extension workers and facilitate direct interaction between farmers and other stakeholders, such as government agencies, experts and scientists.

While farmers can seek advice, government, experts and academics can be informed about the situation on the ground through the real-time experiences farmers share.

Such a mechanism can be seen in mobile and Internet-based forums, such as Desa Apps, developed by Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. ChatGPT has been a trending topic since the end of 2022, as the generative artificial intelligence programme provides a facility to discuss any topic with a humanlike machine. For agricultural extension workers, ChatGPT can play an empowering role.

Extension workers can quickly review and share information with farmers because of the speed of accessing information.

One of the most prominent focuses of the new wave of agricultural extension in the global food system is the systems thinking approach. Unlike its older sister, traditional knowledge transfer that focuses on a passive adoption process, systems thinking assumes that agriculture is based on complex and extensive agricultural innovation systems.

However, policymakers have often generalised and oversimplified issues and society. While conventional extension views knowledge as cognitive content that can be disseminated linearly, the systems thinking approach recognises that knowledge is embedded in social, political and cultural contexts.

Discussion and implementation of the systems thinking approach in Indonesia is still limited. To be able to implement the systems thinking approach, the government needs to consider the following issues. First, policymakers should be concerned about transforming the traditional top-down approach.

A mechanism should be in place to ensure that farmers’ needs are considered. Often, farmers’ needs are not heard by policymakers and the policies produced and technologies introduced are often replicated in a one-size-fits-all manner. — The Jakarta Post/ANN

Yuhan Farah Maulida is a lecturer at the Gadjah Mada University School of Agriculture. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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