August 17, 2017 | By Maddie Poole

Guest Commentary – The New Wave of Agricultural Extension

From the agriculturists of the Zhou dynasty who educated farmers 2,000 years ago, to Peace Corps volunteers educating farmers on soil management practices today, agricultural extension services have served as a vital tool in spreading critical knowledge to farmers—helping them produce more profitable harvests, and ultimately, escape poverty and hunger. However, many extension programs—where they exist at all—are failing to reach smallholder farmers in a way that is effective in spreading scientific research to better agricultural productivity.

Extension programs face a variety of obstacles that restrict them from having the largest possible impact. According to a study conducted in southwestern Ethiopia, many extension workers lack practical skills, and they only cater to farmers who are financially stable. Another study in Democratic Republic of Congo pointed out that extension programs “fail to deliver knowledge due to lack of coordination, no unified and clear policy mandate, lack of funding, aging and low competencies of agents, and lack of mobility and interactions of agents with key actors.” Aside from those factors, poor rural infrastructure in low-income countries has affected transport, communication, and markets on which extension programs depend. 

While some farmers deal with flawed extension systems, many have no system to rely on at all, and the everyday challenges traditional extension programs face have forced governments to rely on other ways to educate farmers. This means that without quality, formal extension, farmers have to rely on either word-of-mouth or literature to supply them with crucial information. Unfortunately, a large percentage of smallholder farmers in developing countries are illiterate, making obtaining this information even harder. In India, over 32 percent of the rural population is illiterate, and that number is expected to be even higher among farmers. In Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger and Senegal literacy rates are below 50 percent.

Without literature as a viable tool to help farmers thrive, agricultural extensionists have begun to explore a new way to spread crucial information: digital animations. The concept of videos to portray information to farmers is not necessarily new; videos demonstrating agricultural concepts have been around since the invention of the video camera. For instance, in Bangladesh, videos on rice seed management, released in 2007, helped over 70 percent of women improve their rice seed drying practices. However, normal video footage cannot show microscopic activity. Digital animation is helpful here because it can illustrate agricultural issues on a microscopic level. Through this technology, farmers are able to learn about pathogens, spore production, and fungal parasites that may inhibit plant growth.

Today, there are several organizations that are producing digital animations for extension, one being Scientific Animations without Borders, or SAWBO.  SAWBO, which was founded in 2011 by Bary Pittendrigh and Julia Bello-Bravo of the University of Illinois, was created to “transform extension information on relevant topics such as agriculture, disease, and female empowerment, into 2D, 2.5D, and 3D animations.” Their videos cover a variety of topics, including row planting of teff, drip irrigation, solar treating of cow-pea seeds, and preventing post-harvest loss, just to name a few. All of their videos can be viewed on their website in their video library. SAWBO relies heavily on collaboration from a variety of global actors including universities, farmers, and everyday people to create these videos. The diversity within these collaborations ensures that the videos are palatable to a variety of audiences. Today, with over 50 animations translated in over 90 different languages, SAWBO has reached millions of farmers worldwide.

In a world where over 75 percent of the global population has a mobile phone, accessing such videos is quite simple. Animations can be downloaded and displayed on computers, tablets, televisions, cellphones, and overhead projection systems from websites such as YouTube. They are deployed all over the world from organizations and everyday people alike. SAWBO, for one, highly encourages the reproduction and distribution of their videos for educational purposes at no cost. They even offer a credit card USB drive that contains over 10GB of SAWBO videos that people can carry and share with ease.

If we want to achieve global food security, the methods by which information is spread to farmers need to be revamped. Fortunately, a world that is constantly advancing technologically makes this possible. It is evident that easily accessible and highly understandable videos have transformed the face of agricultural extension. While there is still a long road ahead to achieve global food security, digital animations hold promise in educating farmers for generations to come. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

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| By Laura Glenn O'Carroll

Climate Solutions, Economic Growth, Global Stability? Rural Girls Hold the Key

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is thrilled to announce a new blog series, Stakeholder Girls, which highlights the central role that rural girls must play in consideration of the 2018 G7 priority theme areas. Each week in June, as the leadership of the G7 meets, we will discuss the central role of rural girls in responding to climate change, preparing for the future of work, economic growth and equality, and building a more secure world. If leaders do not consider the unique strengthens and concerns of rural girls, progress on each of these themes will be curtailed.

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