The role of agricultural extension officers and the service they provide to Mzansi farmers will dramatically change in the next few months. This, says agriculture minister Thoko Didiza, will boost the development of all producers, including smallholder farmers.
Didiza confirmed this during a webinar hosted by the Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment and Promotion (SHEP) programme. It was presented in partnership with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
The SHEP programme is geared to assist smallholder farmers to increase their income through improving their productivity, better management of group dynamics, embracing the concept of farming as a business, and to start off with market access. Currently, many new farmers start off with production, only seeking markets thereafter.
Extension officers to boost farmers
The minister highlighted the important role extension and advisory services, as well as market and market information, play in developing farmers. She elaborated on their role towards contributing to inclusivity in the agricultural sector.
While this may be true, the minister acknowledged that there were critical areas which needed to be addressed first before the sector becomes “inclusive and attractive”.
In line with chapter six of the National Development Plan, which seeks to achieve an integrated and inclusive rural economy by 2030, Didiza’s department have been hard at work ensuring that the sector creates benefits for all participants.
According to the minister this includes “access to land, water, extension and advisory services, finance, market and market information, and access to research and technology. These may not be the only elements required by those who are producing, but they are actually central in my view.”
Zooming into the role of extension officers, Didiza said she regarded these field workers as being the closest to farmers.
“One of the things we want to do as government is strengthen our relationships with farmers in a manner that allows farmers to be independent, confident, and be able to take decision.
“But at the same time, have that relationship that is inter-dependant with our extension and advisory service as a support to farmers.”
Didiza said it was for this reason that government decided to recruit 10 000 extension officers. This was announced as part of finance minister Tito Mboweni’s budget speech in February.
Added responsibilities for extension officers
Furthermore, the minister explained her department no longer wants extension officers to only support and train farmers technically.
Going forward, they have to “…fundamentally [change] in the support that they give to farmers. Market information and how markets work, becomes part of the key element in their work”.
This will demand additional support to extension and advisory services.
“What this will mean is that now our extension officers will need to be in touch with other entities of state that deal with market information and understanding the market,” Didiza said.
These will include engaging with commodity groups, retailers, hospitality industry, correctional services and more.
“Once farmers are able to interface with the market in that way, it builds confidence. But at the same time make decisions about expanding production and make changes and choices that are informed by what’s happening in the market.
“That way we are able to grow our enterprises, independent and confident with the information that we have,” the minister concluded.