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Reaping Greater Impacts in Agricultural Extension

Webinar - Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) Network

The TOPS Program and the Agricultural Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI) hosted Kyle Murphy, Policy Manager of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel’s Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), to present on emerging insights  from the Randomized Control Trial (RCT) literature on information constraints to agricultural technology adoption among smallholder farmers in the developing world. The session reviewed results from evaluations on agricultural extension, social networks, and improving the pedagogical method of extension services:

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“Technologies like improved seeds and fertilizer have the potential to help farmers significantly increase their yields and therefore increase their profits. In some cases, adoption of agricultural technology has been an important factor in countries’ transitions out of poverty.

A farmer’s decision to adopt a new technology, however, requires several types of information. The farmer must know that the technology exists, they must believe that the technology is beneficial, and they must know how to use it effectively. Further complicating the matter, learning about a new agricultural technology is fundamentally challenging. Even if a farmer sees high yields on a plot planted with a new technique or input (like seeds or fertilizer), that might not tell them very much about how it will work on their own plot of land or under different weather conditions.

Governments and NGOs in developing countries dedicate many resources to deliver information that encourages farmers to adopt new inputs and practices. Agricultural extension—in which local agriculture agents visit farmers where they live and work—is the most common method for transmitting this information in developing countries, but run-of-the-mill extension has yielded mixed results at best. In some cases, extension services may be ineffective if they promote a technology which is unprofitable, or a technology of which farmers are already fully informed about the costs, benefits, and production practices.  However, if the extension service has selected a successful technology of which farmers are not fully informed—for example, new seed varieties—there may be room to improve learning outcomes by improving the ways that agents demonstrate the technology to farmers.

Some promising experiments have shown that traditional extension can be made more effective through incorporating ICTs, changes in the methods of direct farmer trainings, and changes in how extension programs encourage social diffusion (sharing new technologies with friends and neighbors). Improvements in extension services may be particularly useful where learning is hard and where targeted messages address a behavioral barrier to technology adoption, like procrastination.

On April 6, 2017, Kyle Murphy (Policy Manager, J-PAL Global) led a presentation to the Food Security and Nutrition Network (FSN) outlining key takeaways from randomized evaluations on information and extension services for smallholder farmers. The talk covered the theoretical motivation for J-PAL’s work in the area, and highlighted encouraging examples of farmer field schools using ICTs to reach farmers directly and increasing their effectiveness.

As part of its Emerging Insights series, the Agriculture Technology Adoption Initiative (ATAI), led by the Center for Effective Global Action at Berkeley and J-PAL, released a synthesis of findings on interventions providing information to farmers. To read more evaluations in J-PAL’s Agriculture Sector, check out our database of evaluation summaries.”



This was the second session in a series on emerging insights from randomized evaluations hosted by The TOPS Program and ATAI. 

To listen to the first session, visit Randomized Evaluations in Practice: Opportunities and Challenges.

The TOPS Program and ATAI will collaborate on a series of presentations in 2017, offering both in-person and online participation options. Subsequent sessions will include such topics:

  • Evidence in Agriculture: Risk and Credit – an overview of emerging insights from the RCT literature on how exposure to risk constraints influence smallholder farmers’ decisions around technology adoption, and on credit constraints to agricultural technology adoption among smallholder farmers in the developing world. The session will review results from evaluations on weather-based index insurance, stress-tolerant seed varieties, microcredit, biometric credit bureaus, flexible collateral arrangements, and harvest/planting time loans. How does weather risk influence farmers’ decisions? What solutions are the most promising going forward? How does lack of access to credit constrain farmers from adopting to potentially profitable technologies? Can the microcredit model be adapted to better serve rural smallholders?
  • Globally Informed Locally Grounded Program Development – focuses on how lessons from smaller evaluations can generalize to inform larger program design across contexts, as well as how general lessons from the literature can be used to increase impacts. What types of data are useful to different parts of your theory of change? How is evidence from different contexts useful? How can you use very contextual and experimental evidence to inform your program design?