Unattractive bride – the case of government extension services in Central Malawi

In 2000, Malawi adopted a pluralistic and demand-driven agricultural extension policy which liberalised agricultural extension provision, allowing multiple stakeholders to freely provide extension services that are coordinated and regulated by the government. This policy is anchored by an implementation system called District Agricultural Extension Services System (DAESS) that has established structures at District, and community levels, bringing together stakeholders to either demand or provide extension services.  Stakeholders including farmers are expected to articulate their extension needs and present them to extension providers for action. However, the government has remained the main provider of extension services in Malawi.

Nineteen years on, there has been a worrisome trend on the sustainability of delivering extension services – farmers are not patronising government extension services and it seems their incentives are skewed. Farmers’ perceptions towards government extension services have changed when compared to the time preceding the 2000 policy initiatives.

Why aren’t farmers patronising government extension agent activities?

While the government of Malawi has the largest number of extension workers on the ground, they are finding it hard to attract the attendance and active participation of farmers in their extension activities, be they meetings, or demonstrations. Interviews with key informants revealed that NGOs have distorted the agricultural extension landscape in Malawi by giving monetary allowances and other freebies, like food and snacks, as a strategy of ensuring high attendance and active participation of rural smallholder farmers. This has skewed incentives for participation and conditioned the farmers to expect to be ‘bribed’ with certain tokens.

Amidst this, government extension apparatus faces chronic resource challenges to facilitate the mobility of extension staff to deliver extension services in their areas of jurisdiction. One government extension worker in Mchinji said:

“… government does not have money to give to farmers who participate in our extension meetings. Sometimes we do not have even office stationery. So, we cannot afford to be buying food for farmers for coming to our meetings. As a result, because farmers are used to the culture of monetary allowances promoted by our NGO partners, farmers find government extension meetings less rewarding.”

While another in Ntchisi expressed;

“…most farmers do not come to government-organised extension activities because we do not give them handouts like money and food. Extension meetings by NGOs are scrambled for by the smallholders because of money and food given. NGOs also give free inputs to farmers. Even when in rare cases government tries to emulate the NGOs, it cannot meet the frequency and intensity of the NGOs in as far as handouts are concerned.”

Other extension workers tend to have an opportunity to interact with farmers when commissioned by an NGO. A Ntchisi extension worker said that such meetings are treated differently. He observed when the same government extension worker facilitates activities organised by NGOs, many farmers attend and actively participate, indicating that high farmer apathy in government extension activities is not due to poor extension skills and attitudes by government extension workers, but rather the absence of monetary and food incentives.

Some extension workers in Ntchisi admitted to not visiting villages to deliver extension services unless for purposes of registering beneficiaries and delivering inputs under the government-sponsored Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). Preoccupation with FISP has obstructed the delivery of other core extension services.

Extension meeting on collective marketing of tomatoes in Kamtande Village, Bembeke Extension Planning Area, Dedza, Malawi
Photo credit: courtesy of Nothando Vinkhumbo Chiloro; Graduate of Agriculture Extension 2019, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Government extension workers reduced to FISP officers?

Life history interviews conducted revealed a common perception among smallholder farmers that government extension officers in the districts have been reduced to Farm Input Subsidy officers. Most farmers reported only seeing the agricultural extension workers either when registering farm FISP beneficiaries, or when they delivered FISP coupons to the farmers.

Are the incentives to participate in extension services sustainable?

NGOs have justified the provision of allowances and other freebies as necessary in order to facilitate the movement of farmers to the extension meetings, and compensation for time spent at meetings, even though the farmers are the ultimate beneficiaries of such meetings. Other extension service providers, actors and stakeholders have blamed the NGOs for encouraging a culture of handout, even disadvantaging fellow non-governmental players who have no resources to ‘buy’ the participation of farmers.

This culture is threatening sustainability of extension services beyond the NGO project period. NGOs’ biggest limitation is that they operate in an impact area only for limited period due to the short-lifespan nature of their projects. Once an NGO project phases out, the extension services also cease. At their own peril, the farmers that remain behind are more likely to continue shunning government agricultural extension services due to lack incentives– failure to access agricultural extension services may affect realised outcomes,  for example with yields and farm incomes.

Mobilisation strategies for farmers are likely to be beneficial if organised around a creation of ownership and an emphasis on the value of extension services, not just on the material benefit of attending. However, the rent-seeking behaviour among farmers is also fierce; it is driving participation which restricts a culture where technologies can be taught through extension over time, or more pertinent, when the NGO in question leaves a locality.


The complaints by smallholder farmers that extension workers are not visiting their households and fields to provide them with extension services must be analysed within the context of the demand-driven and pluralistic agricultural extension policy.

Extension workers can only operate by responding to the demands of farmers, but services must be demanded in the first place in order to be provided. There are several reasons why a farmer might not demand extension services:

  • farmers may not be aware of how to demand extension services and what channels to use;
  • farmers may be lacking urgency to demand services to solve their challenges;
  • farmers perceive that government extension workers are financially incapacitated to deliver their functions;
  • extension workers may be overloaded with work to react swiftly on demands. Already, there is one extension worker who attends to 3,000 farmers, against the recommended number of 500-700 ;
  • furthermore, given the high levels of rent-seeking among farmers, that like any economic agent, they may realise that government extension services do not attract tokens, therefore disincentivising any participation.

There is need to critically assess the flow of extension demands to extension workers and feedback provided to farmers. Why is the extension system in place failing to generate and facilitate responses on demands from farmers? Could a unified approach between the extension-leveraging strengths of the NGO, and the government method, be the way to go? Or should the government provide adequate resources to match NGO activities?  Alternatively, could NGOs align with the government approach and stop providing incentives? The 2000 extension policy is under review, therefore what strategies would best address these implementation challenges?  

Written by Masautso Chimombo, APRA Malawi (based on APRA Qualitative study being undertaken in Mchinji and Ntchisi district)

Cover photo: Demonstration on Mbeya fertilizer making at Mtelemuka village, Chisepo Extension Planning, Dowa District

Cover photo credit: Isaah Bakili, Graduate of Agriculture Extension 2019, Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources