Grassroots organizations: How effective are they in disseminating agroforestry innovations?

In-depth studies needed to increase understanding of the factors affecting performance of organizations disseminating agricultural innovations, say Ann Degrande, Steven  Franzel, Yannick Siohdjie Yeptiep, Ebenezer Asaah, Alain Tsobeng and Zac Tchoundjeu

Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for a reason: none of the other MDGs can be met without food security and economic development. Strengthening the agricultural sector improves access to nutritious food and reduces rural poverty. The role of extension in this battle is clear.

In the sixties and seventies, developing-country governments invested heavily in agricultural extension. However, from the 1980s, support for extension declined drastically as  governments underwent structural adjustments. Official Development Assistance (ODA) to agriculture also dropped significantly, not only in percentage terms but also in absolute terms. After many years of under-investment in agriculture, and particularly in extension, the tide has fortunately changed—more funding is now becoming available for agricultural extension.

The current interest in agricultural advisory services is part of a broader shift in thinking that positions agriculture as a key player in pro-poor development. For example, twenty-four  African countries listed extension as one of the top agricultural priorities in their strategies for poverty reduction. There is also growing awareness that public extension is not always the most efficient source of information for farmers, and there have been many reforms to make them it more pluralistic, demand-driven, cost effective, efficient and sustainable.

While ineffective dissemination methods have contributed to low adoption of agricultural innovations in general, this is particularly true for agroforestry innovations, which are known
to be complex, knowledge intensive, involving several components, requiring the learning of new skills, and often providing benefits only after a long period. To face the challenges of inappropriate extension methods for agroforestry, the World Agroforestry Centre (the centre) in West and Central Africa has been experimenting, for the last five years, with relay organisations, rural resource centres and participatory tree domestication to disseminate agroforestry innovations. The centre collaborates with three 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 (CRP6).

  • Relay organisations are grassroots, local, or community-based organisations promoting the adoption of innovations.
  • Rural resource centres are venues where new techniques are developed and demonstrated and where farmers can come for information, experimentation and training.
  • Participatory tree domestication is a farmer-driven and market-led process matching the intraspecific diversity of locally important trees to the needs of farmers, product markets and agricultural environments.

In the light of renewed interest in agricultural extension worldwide, major challenges and institutional innovations that were introduced to overcome them were reviewed. Results show that, overall, relay organisations were successful in diffusing agroforestry innovations to farmer groups. However, the findings call for in-depth studies, involving more relay  rganisations, to increase our understanding of the factors affecting the performance of these organisations.

A relatively high level of satisfied farmers demonstrates the fact that grassroots organisations have increased the relevance of agroforestry techniques and rendered an improved quality of services to beneficiaries. Already, farmer-led experimentation and adaptation is common in the rural resource centres and farmers are encouraged to provide feedback. The approach has also succeeded in reaching a relatively high number of women and youths, often overlooked in ‘traditional’ extension systems.

Challenges include the quality of the messages delivered to farmers and the technical expertise of the relay organization staff. This calls for continuous training, coaching and upgrading of extension staff.

One of the criticisms of more traditional extension systems is the insufficient links with stakeholders. However with rural resource centres concrete linkages have been established with  research and, in some cases, with traders. One of the generic problems of agricultural extension, namely the difficulty of cost recovery, has not been addressed in the current study. It is expected that community-based extension would be more cost-efficient than other approaches. However, the current understanding of the sustainability and financial viability of the  approach is not sufficient to draw any conclusions and more research is required in this domain.

Read the full book chapter here.'

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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