Volunteer farmer trainers: What challenges do they face?

Over the last decade, governments and aid agencies across the developing world have increasingly been calling on smallholder farmers to help them spread the word about improved farming techniques to other farmers in their communities. This bottom-up approach has many benefits, but the farmers volunteer to become trainers face a number of challenges, including a lack of training materials, limited technical knowledge, and resistance to change among their fellow farmers. 

Figuring out how to manage these challenges is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of the volunteer farmer trainer (VFT) approach, according ICRAF scientists Dr. Evelyne Kiptot and Dr. Steven Franzel, joint authors of an article on the subject that was recently published in the journal Development in Practice.

VFT projects take different approaches, but they have some common features: External agents train the VFTs, who then share their knowledge and skills with other farmers in their communities. In most cases, VFTs are not paid for their services; however, they are provided with relevant training and the tools they need to set up demonstration plots. Many VFTs also report that becoming a trainer raises their social status in their communities.

But becoming a volunteer farmer trainer comes with many challenges as well. Chief among these are a lack of training materials, high expectations from other farmers, the volunteers’ own limited technical knowledge, and the cost of transport to and from the sites where the volunteers work. 

These were the conclusions that emerged from a series of focus group discussions, interviews, and formal surveys that were conducted in seven sites in Kenya’s Central and Rift Valley regions. All of the sites involved in the study are part of the East Africa Dairy Development (EADD) project, an initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and which is managed by ICRAF in collaboration with Heifer International, the International Livestock Research Institute, and other partners. 

The study also asked VFTs to identify opportunities for improving their performance as volunteer trainers. The top responses included offering additional training workshops; handing out additional training materials, including reference books, brochures, and magazines; running exchange tours; and providing VFTs with additional incentives, including branded bags, t-shirts, and caps. 

“Exposure to new knowledge through exchange visits and tours was ranked as the most important opportunity for improving performance. Respondents said they learn more by seeing what others are doing,” the authors wrote. “Provision of training materials ranked second, followed by capacity building, that is, more training workshops on livestock feed technologies.”  

Looking beyond the individual farmer, the biggest challenge to the VFT approach may be finding a funding stream to sustain the volunteers down the line. 

“Most of these [farmer-to-farmer training] approaches are facilitated by [aid] projects, rather than government ministries. Improving VFT’s performance and ensuring sustainability of community-based extension is therefore a major challenge of the EADD project and other donor-funded projects elsewhere.” 

Indeed, the managers of the EADD project – which is active in Uganda and Rwanda, as well as in Kenya – have already begun to devise their exit strategy, which involves gradually passing off the management of VFTs to locally based Dairy Farmers’ Business Associations (DFBAs), which have the potential to become self-sustaining. DFBAs have begun recruiting community extension service providers (CESPs), who provide “technical backstopping” to VFTs and other local farmers.  

“Linking VFTs to CESPs will ensure that they are up to date with current knowledge and innovations,” the authors wrote. “In addition, CESPs should also in turn link to government extensions services, which are found in all districts and have all the expertise that is required by farmers.” 

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