Volunteer farmer trainers: go or no go?
In the 21st century, extension services will need to grapple with challenges such as climate change, food insecurity, gender inequality and the globalization of agriculture. A different kind of challenge, but arguably the most important, is the challenge of going beyond just extending messages—to positioning farmers as the principal agents of change in their communities. This needs approaches that will enhance farmers’ learning and innovation, and improve their capacity for more efficient production and marketing. One such approach has been operational in western Kenya for more than ten years: the volunteer farmer trainer approach, initially developed by a collaborative project to disseminate agroforestry technologies, spearheaded by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). ICRAF collaborates with 3 other CG centres to improve smallholder systems and outputs as part of work to achieve the goals of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry.
The approach involves farmer trainers, who share their knowledge and experience and conduct experiments. They do not receive any payments but get free training, and seed and seedlings for setting up demonstration plots on their farms. This approach aims to reach a large number of farmers through the multiplier effect, enabling farmers to adapt or innovate, make better decisions, and provide feedback to researchers and policy-makers. When farmers are used as trainers, they stand a better chance of success than technicians because they know the audience and language better.
Although this approach has been operational in western Kenya for more than ten years, the effectiveness of farmer trainers has not been evaluated. To address this, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), ICRAF and KEFRI designed a study to evaluate the effectiveness of farmer trainers in disseminating agricultural technologies in western Kenya. Specifically, the study assessed the type of information disseminated, the farmer trainers characteristics desirable to farmer trainees, and how trainees evaluate trainers.
Data were collected through focused group and open discussions, and interviews with 44 farmer trainers (32% women) and 91 trainees (63% women). Effectiveness of training was assessed based on level of learner satisfaction and attributes pertaining to knowledge, skill, attitude and application of the learning on farms. Other topics examined included selection of farmer trainers, organization of training, type, how and to whom information is disseminated, and farmer trainers’ constraints and opportunities.
It was found that farmer trainers play important roles such as mobilizing and training fellow farmers, hosting demonstration plots, bulking and distributing planting materials. They were, however, rated slightly lower in follow-ups and seed bulking. Farmer trainers disseminate on average two to four
different types of technology. Crop-based technologies were disseminated more than livestock-based ones. Technical backstopping from extension workers remains a challenge, which may compromise quality of information disseminated.
The survey showed that the approach is sustainable, with farmer trainers continuing their work several years after project support had ended. Since the project ended in 2005, the farmer trainers have taken up and disseminated many other agricultural technologies promoted by various institutions in western
Kenya, including the push-pull strategy to control striga weed, and the promotion of fodder shrubs by ICRAF and partners to improve livestock productivity.
The results from this study are useful to development programmes keen on using low-cost, community-based dissemination approaches. Recommendations are made for selecting farmer trainers, organizing training, types of technologies to disseminate incentives, and sustainability.