Established to increase the pace and productivity of agricultural development, agricultural extension organizations provide educational services to farmers. Agents are experts in agricultural technologies. They visit farmers across Zambia to learn about community needs and offer training in new methods that help address those needs.
Do you find that you need to balance between local needs and global systems?
Definitely! What we’re promoting is that you think globally and act locally. There are lots of players in the agricultural sector, and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel. But you do find that different communities have different needs.
For example, we’re in the process right now of assessing water irrigation, and we have to do so in the context of the harvest cycle here in Zambia, which lasts from November to May. We’re also looking into solar technologies. Zambia has tropical conditions and extreme temperatures – sunlight is always here! – but technologies for harnessing it have developed elsewhere.
What teaching methods do you use when introducing farmers to new technologies?
It’s only difficult to convince farmers of the merits of a new technology or innovation if they haven’t seen it work. We follow the 20-60-80 rule: students remember only 20 percent of what they hear in the classroom, 60 percent of what you show them, and 80 percent of what they actually do. When farmers see something working, they are likely to adopt it. So the approach we take is demonstration.
For every new technology that you introduce, you have to demonstrate it from beginning to end. With the hermetic bag storage, for example, we went through the whole process: how you tie the bag, remove the air – the whole thing. Then, you show them the benefit.
Extension officers learn about new technologies through research; we look at the market, then approach suppliers and try to get a deeper understanding from them. We look for what is easy to understand and try it out for ourselves. Whatever works, you scale up after a trial.
Are there major differences between farming in Zambia now and a few years ago?
Yes, farming has changed a whole lot in the past 5-7 years. A few years ago, farming was a rural occupation. But now, with robust training, you see people running farming as a business, making plans and trying to determine their projected earnings. People are making a living and improving their lives with farming. They’re able to build proper housing structures or buy solar equipment. We’ve seen a lot of farming now that’s highly mechanized. Previously farmers used hand hoes, but now people can use draft power and rent tractors.
A few years ago, if you were born in a farming community, you would definitely become a farmer. Now, children are sent to school and they may decide to do something else.
What are some of the challenges you face in supporting farmers?
In some cases, disorganization. Since we don’t work with individuals but with groups, it makes a big difference if the group as a whole is committed and organized. Another major challenge is language barriers. Over 90% of the farmers we support don’t speak English. A third issue is the timing of the season. Because the season is limited, farmers need support in this concentrated period of time, which can make for an overwhelming workload for extension officers.
How do new technologies interact with traditional practices?
When you go into the community, you’re not going to replace what they’ve been doing all along. First, you do a needs assessment so that the needs come from the farmers and are not forced on them. They talk to you about what’s working in their practice and what’s not. Many of the technologies that work are traditional.
We want our communities to have the advantages of both traditional knowledge and new technology without claiming one is superior to the other. Farmers might adopt a new technology without abandoning their old methods for performing the same task.
I’ll give you an example. Some farmers use neem extract to prevent pests from damaging fruits and vegetables. It’s a very cumbersome and time-intensive process; you have to soak the leaves for a couple of days. We introduced a new material, which was less laborious to apply, but it was not without its challenges. The farmers could only get this material from certain shops, and it cost a lot. When they have the resources, they’ll use the new method, but when they don’t, they maintain their old methods.
On other occasions, a new technology will replace an old one. For example, farmers used to use a plough that turned the soil over, exposing microorganisms and losing moisture that might have been retained. We introduced rippers, which make only a strip of line in the soil without turning it over. Farmers noticed that, over the years, they could reuse the land without investing in fertilizer.
What’s one thing you’d like people to know about extension work?
Extension is fun! Sometimes it’s not the most prestigious field where you make the big bucks. But it’s about the service. It’s about being able to see the transformation of people’s lives for the better.
Jennifer Flaherty is a writer with a Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley in Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is an expert in 19th century Russian literature and culture, which she has taught at a number of institutions, and has a broad interest in social issues and how art and cultural forms grapple with them. She is pursuing new opportunities at the intersection of publishing, arts and culture organizations, and non-profit work dedicated to causes of social justice.