Extension workers like Mantombi Mbongo lend a much-needed helping hand to African farmers.

Growing up in a rural village in Qwaqwa, South Africa, Mantombi Mbongo realized at a young age just how much the local farmers had to learn. “I saw how my community battled with [agricultural] production issues—what to grow, when, and how,” recalls Mbongo, whose parents were both subsistence farmers. “The community workers who visited couldn’t do much to help, and I later realised that it was because they lacked the knowledge. Their education level was too low.”

Determined to do something to improve things, Mbongo enrolled at the Fort Cox College of Agriculture and Forestry after completing school. In 1992 she was appointed by the government as an extension officer, traveling around to rural communities and educating farmers on everything from farming practices to how to market their crops. “Surprisingly, I was deployed at my own village,” she says. “There was a community garden next to our home, and for the first time during the summer of that year, we were able to sell the vegetables in the market near the village.”

Mbongo helped village farmers plant potatoes for the first time, and that initial crop proved a success. Farmers even dried and canned some of their produce for winter use. “When I saw the excitement among the women from the garden,” she says, “I knew that in some way I had brought hope to those women.”

Mbongo hasn’t stopped spreading hope. Today, in addition to her day job as a government-employed extension worker, she serves as president of the board of the South African Society for Agricultural Extension (SASAE), a voluntary professional body that represents agricultural extension workers, mostly in South Africa and a few in other African countries, India, the U.S., and Asia.

Meeting the need

Dedicated extension workers like Mbongo are sorely needed throughout Africa. According to a 2008 report by the World Bank, growth in the agricultural sector reduces poverty twice as effectively as growth in any other sector. This makes sense: better knowledge of farming techniques and better access to resources improve crop yields, which boosts livestock health, which feeds more people and creates more jobs, which attracts more workers to industrial centers and boosts overall economic growth.

Growth in the agricultural sector reduces poverty twice as effectively as growth in any other sector.

Nowhere are the beneficial effects needed more than in Africa, where resources are notoriously scarce. African farmers face a host of challenges, including low education levels, outdated farming techniques, lack of funding, and poor access to high-quality inputs like seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides.

The result? Agricultural development in Africa lags far behind that in the developed world, despite the fact that the continent holds much of the world’s arable land and an abundance of people to work it. In 2011 alone, Africa spent $35 billion on imported food products, excluding fish; replacing all this food with local options could drastically alter the food security and financial success of the continent.

Extension workers hold the key to this cascade of positive effects, connecting farmers with a strong network of experts and profitable markets. “Extension workers serve as the link between farmers and the resources they need,” says Mbongo. “Resources like expert advice, skills training, financial assistance, and information on new research and technology.”

It’s an extension worker’s job to visit farmers and answer their questions, demonstrating and advising on all aspects of farming, from mulching to marketing. When necessary, extension workers also call in relevant experts, and they organize study groups for farmers with common interests to come together and discuss their challenges. “We try to direct farmers to whatever might help them,” Mbongo says. “It’s about working together with other organizations, governments, and experts, to give farmers access to the services they need.”

Ripple effect

Extension workers play a particularly valuable role in South Africa, where many farmers have no idea how to run a successful farm, having been granted access to land by the government in compensation for land seizures during apartheid. “Many of South Africa’s subsistence farmers struggle because they don’t have the knowledge or the skills,” says Mbongo. Extension workers have been addressing these shortcomings with initiatives like the government’s Small Stock Improvement Scheme, which provides disadvantaged farmers with programs to help them look after their livestock more effectively.

It isn’t about telling the farmers that their current methods are wrong, explains Mbongo. It’s about working together with the farmers to improve their results, matching new techniques with existing knowledge to offer practical solutions. “It really made a difference,” says Mbongo. “Participating farmers started to see their farms as businesses rather than personal projects, and they began to appreciate the bigger impact of their decisions on the land and on the surrounding community.” In September 2018, Mbongo notes, farmers who followed the program were able to sell their weaner calves at a higher price than the average commercial farmer, thanks to their superior quality. “That’s how we knew it was working,” she says.

In Mbongo’s view, however, there aren’t enough extension workers to go around. “The norms and standards recommend that the ratio of extension officers to farmers should be 1:300 for livestock farmers and 1:500 for crop farmers,” says Mbongo. “Looking at our current situation in South Africa, this is still not enough. Newly settled farmers need more attention and, if we are to increase the contribution to the GDP, we need more extension officers.”

Currently, around 3,000 extension workers are employed by the South African government, which allocates only around 4 or 5 percent of its spending to the agricultural sector. “There is a very small budget,” says Mbongo, “so resources like transport, laptops, telephones, and access to the Internet are a challenge for extension workers.” Without these resources, servicing 300 farmers isn’t manageable, as there is no way to communicate with them.

Around 3,000 extension workers are employed by the South African government, which allocates around 4 or 5 percent of its spending to the agricultural sector.

 

Continent-wide efforts

Problems like these are even more pronounced in other African countries, where the ratio of farmers to extension workers can be as high as 3,000 to one. While African governments agreed to allocate 10 percent of their spending to agriculture in 2003, they have largely failed to do so. This will need to be addressed as the continent’s population continues to grow.

“There are huge potentials for agriculture in Africa. The continent is blessed with abundant natural and other resources, including water, fertile land, many months of sunshine, as well as human resources—particularly young people, who currently make up about 65 percent of the population,” says Edward Perry, director of extension for Liberia’s Ministry of Agriculture. “One apparent major challenge facing the continent is the failure to provide the requisite financial support to the sector, including to Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services (AEAS). This is critically required to ensure agricultural technologies are disseminated to farmers on a regular and sustainable basis.”

Agricultural development has the potential to affect the lives of billions—and it all begins with dedicated people like Mbongo—hardworking people who spend every day effecting change and improving farmers’ lives, one production problem at a time.

“Extension is one profession where you see the results of your work only after many years,” says Mbongo. “In the three decades that I have spent serving farmers, I’ve seen those who failed and those who succeeded. We cried together when things went wrong, and we celebrated together when things went well.”