By HANOK JENALA*
For several years, Malawi has been experiencing a drop in farm produce. This is despite government’s intervention of offering farm inputs at a subsidised market price through the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp).
Agricultural experts in the country have attributed the diminishing of farm produce to unavailability of agricultural extension workers in rural areas, which is the base of farming activities.
Many farmers are unable to access new farming technologies which are adaptable to climate change effects. In fact, farmers are being left out in climate change mitigation initiatives.
This absence of extension workers has created a huge gap between policy makers within the Ministry of Agriculture and farmers—a gap that cannot be filled by information and communications technology (ICT) innovations since Malawi rural community has not fully adopted the concept.
And because the country’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture, the unavailability of extension workers in the rural areas has also negatively affected the country’s gross domestic product.
However, one would wonder why there is such a shortage of extension workers in rural areas when there are many students graduating from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) every year. Where do these graduates go? And why is it that in the Kamuzu Banda era, we had adequate personnel working as agricultural extension workers in rural areas?
Some are of the view that this is due to lack of poor conditions that rural extension workers are subjected to such as poor housing facilities, which makes living in rural areas less appealing to graduates. While this could be true, my view on shortage of extension workers in rural areas is slightly different.
I believe the problem started when government decided to privatise Natural Resources College (NRC), the primary institution that trains extension workers in the country. As a result of the privatisation, tuition and accommodation fees sky -rocketed. This had a direct impact on enrolment, as most people could not afford to study there.
As a private entity, NRC is now pursuing business interests aimed at making profits. This leaves out the core purpose of college, turning it into a prestigious institution instead. Most people who can afford to study at NRC are from urban areas, with little interest in rural agricultural activities. Once they obtain their diploma or degree, they switch their interest and do something else that does not match with their qualification, as long as the job keeps them in the city. Some NRC graduates are working as bank tellers or cashiers. What a waste of resources!
If Malawi is to move forward economically, we need to ensure that all positions in both private and public sectors are occupied by holders of qualifications that match the positions.
Government has to take full responsibility in ensuring that the training for agricultural extension workers is accessible to all deserving students—in this case, those with a passion and who are prepared to live in rural areas. This can be achieved through introducing distance learning, as the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has been doing with Open Distance Learning (ODL) programme for teachers.
The students should be encouraged to practise in their respective areas so that they can assist farmers where necessary, thereby practising what they study. This will offer the trainees hands-on practical experience and help them build a good working relationship with the farmers.
Working within their home area will also be a plus as this will guarantee that students will not have difficulties adjusting to the location’s culture and language.
*The author is a marketer working for Maziko Radio Station in Lilongwe.