South Africa has more than three million farmers but only 2 492 agricultural extension officers to keep them connected to government support. Farmers have therefore welcomed a renewed commitment from government to employ 10 000 more extension officers between now and 2024, but the welcome comes with a condition: extension officers who know what they are doing.
An aggressive recruitment drive was initially meant to start last year, following a budget announcement by former finance minister Tito Mboweni.
But “due to insufficient funds, the department [of agriculture, land reform and rural development only] appointed 678 extension personnel for a period of three months”, spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo tells Food For Mzansi.
The department is, however, still committed to get the number up to more than 12 000 by adding 5 000 new recruits in the current financial year and another 5 000 by 2024.
According to the department, the Western and Northern Cape have only a 3% share of the country’s extension officers at the moment. It plans to up the number by 216 in the Western Cape and 213 in the Northern Cape.
“KwaZulu-Natal employs the largest number of extension officials, which constitutes 26% of the total,” Ngcobo says. “This is followed by the Eastern Cape at 24% and Limpopo at 16%.”
The department plans to appoint 840 new recruits in KwaZulu-Natal, while the Eastern Cape is set to get 920 and Limpopo 942. Mpumalanga is hoped to see an allocation of 804 officers and Gauteng a total of 471. Farmers in the Free State and North West are meant to receive support from 302 and 292 additional employees, respectively.
Extension officers need to play their part
Farmers and role players in the sector have welcomed the news, but are calling on the department to ensure quality appointments. “We need extension officers who will be on top of their game with regard to agricultural matters,” says Elijah Ramafoko.
Ramafoko is a former deputy director for farmer training at the Northern Cape department of agriculture, land reform and rural development. He retired in March this year.
He says it is important that farmers are allocated knowledgeable extension officers who can adequately advise the country’s food producers on current critical matters in the sector. “Farmers need to know what is trending, how to deal with climate change, and [how to introduce farmers] to new technology trends,” he tells Food For Mzansi.
Limpopo farmer Ndivhuwo Nengwenani agrees and says that farmers need support staff who will effectively link them to government and financial support.
“The type of extension officers we need are the ones who are going to assist us with the needs that we have as farmers. They are supposed to be a link between us, the farmers, and the government. We need people who will be our voices.”
Ramafoko emphasises that farmers’ success is intricately linked to how well extension officers play their part. While there’s no questioning the great need for government to invest in extension officers to ensure sectoral growth, those who are appointed must be of a “high quality”, he adds.
“If you have extension officers with a hunger to serve farmers, you will see a successful farmer being exposed to lots of opportunities.
“It is the responsibility of the extension officers to act as ambassadors to farmers, be a linkage between farmers and government, expose them to opportunities in training, access to markets and, importantly, give them information,” he says.
Private extension officers preferred
Meanwhile, North West University agricultural economics Prof. Victor Mmbengwa agrees that extension service is critical to the productivity of farms but found that farmers often reach out to private-sector service providers.
In a 2009 paper, Mmbengwa wrote on extension services in the Western Cape and highlighted that farmers in the province regarded official extension workers as of little value to their farming activities.
Despite their services being free to all South African farmers, commercial farmers don’t prefer them and instead use private extension services for their farming support.
“It appears that the lack of quality in extension services may act as deterrent for the commercial farming sector to utilise it,” he pointed out.
“Well-supported agricultural enterprises may contribute significantly in job creation and consequently alleviate food insecurity,” he said, and recommended a focused approach in improving the situation.
“The study recommends the training of extension workers on impact subjects such as marketing, technology transfer and finances.”
Sign up for Mzansi Today: Your daily take on the news and happenings from the agriculture value chain.