The majority of poor people in developing countries live in rural areas, rely on agriculture for their employment and spend a high proportion of their income on food. Population densities continue to increase and land available for the expansion of agriculture is becoming increasingly scarce. Moreover, labour constraints, particularly in households headed by women, often limit farmers' ability to expand the area they cultivate. Thus, sustainable increases in land and labour productivity in agriculture, through technological and managerial innovation, continue to be crucial means through which both poverty reduction and economic growth are sought.
In the past, public sector agricultural services in developing countries played a vital role in promoting technological innovation in agriculture. However, changes in the structure of the public sector, as well as in the context in which it operates and in the likely nature of future technological innovation, raise questions about whether the institutions that supported the green revolution will be able to meet the challenges of the continued need for increases in agricultural productivity (See, for example, Antholt, C. (1994:4) 'Getting Ready for the Twenty-First Century: Technical Change and Institutional Modernisation in Agriculture.' World Bank Technical Paper No. 217, World Bank, Washington, DC. He suggests that the impossibility of a repeat of the widespread effects of the green revolution is due to constraints on the role that biotechnology can play in this process, as well as physical limits on the further expansion of land under cultivation and irrigation). It is likely that future gains in agricultural productivity through technological innovation will have to be more incremental, locally specific and directly geared towards specific farmer constraints. This is particularly true for resource-poor farmers operating in environments which cannot be unified through irrigation and purchased inputs, which are remote from markets and political and urban centres, and in which the natural resource base is fragile. The need for locally-specific technological innovation means that, if agricultural research and extension organisations are to be effective, their agendas and outputs will have to be more demand-led than they were in the past.
In response to this situation, a number of organisations have, over the last two decades, attempted to support the establishment of poor-farmer responsive agricultural servicess. In many of these experimental projects or programmes, farmers, rather than professional extensionists or researchers, have acted as the principal agents of change. These experiments appear to have had quite a high degree of success in terms of discovering or identifying productivity enhancing technologies, which are then widely adopted. They have also been able to do so at relatively low cost.
However, not only are such programmes still rare islands in a sea of conventional programmes, but they also face many problems of their own creation. In recognition of this, a one-week workshop was organised by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) and World Neighbors (WN) in July 1995 with the aim of:encouraging a sharing of experiences between those working in farmer-led extension programmes and creating an opportunity for learning on the part of those who are engaged in conventional extension services, but are interested in more responsive approaches.
The workshop's 75 participants came from a wide range of professional backgrounds. They included: farmers and farmer extensionists; community representatives/workers; NGO representatives involved in supporting farmer-led extension and/or research; public sector representatives some of whom were involved in reorienting extension and research services towards more responsive modes of operation and others who were interested to learn more about the farmer-led approaches being supported by other organisations; donor representatives and academics. The formal objectives of the workshop were:
to draw out guidelines and lessons from experiences to date;
to examine the constraints and potential for scaling-up responsive methods of agricultural service provision;
Fifty-one papers were submitted to the workshop. These, together with the discussions held during the workshop, will be reflected in a book to be published this year. Here, a selection of the papers are presented in their entirety. These have been chosen to illustrate the various methods currently being used in different parts of the world to help ensure that research and extension agendas and activities are determined by poor farmers. We have grouped them into three categories, although there is considerable overlap between these. The first two groups of papers describe projects or activities which are based on common methods. The first group focuses on farmer-to-farmer extension, in which farmers are the extension agents and outsiders facilitate their work. The second set of papers describes various farmer research activities, supported by specialist researchers and other professionals. The third group describes a collection of other methods and mechanisms which are currently being used to increase the responsiveness of previously conventional services.