Agriculture is not an art; it is a science. Yet, when picturing a scientist, a farmer usually is not the image that comes to mind.
This creates an inherent tension: Farmers need to understand scientific best practices to be successful, but how can the latest research reach farmers who live in far-flung rural areas and may have had limited access to education?
For decades, the answer to this question has been the extension service. Public extension agents, often employed by governments or universities, serve as roving agriculture specialists who provide training and demonstrations to farmers. For example, extension agents might teach farmers how to test their soil and select the best fertilizer based on the results, or share information about the highest-quality seed varieties of a particular crop ahead of planting season.
Yet in Uganda, this fundamental part of the agriculture system was piecemeal and unorganized, with an understaffed public extension system and a mishmash of unregistered private and non-governmental extension agents. Part of the confusion was due to the lack of a centralized strategy or guidelines for extension. “I worked in the extension service at the local government level before becoming the director of agricultural extension services,” recalls Beatrice Byarugaba. “Because there was no policy at that time, each of us had to be resourceful and think of our own extension projects.”
Without enough guidance from the central level, most farmers only received extension services if they were lucky enough to have a motivated and creative extension agent. As a result, many farmers received no services at all.
The effect of this disorganization was serious: In Uganda, the average smallholder farmer produces only about 28 percent of the yields that are possible, according to Ms. Byarugaba, in large part because farmers do not have access to the information they need on agricultural best practices. Clearly, something needed to change.