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New Agriculturist: Focus on... Targeting extension to a moving target
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Targeting extension to a moving target

Picture an extension agent on his bicycle or motorbike, visiting farmers who work land much like his own. He gives them advice, perhaps invites them to a nearby training event, and goes home. Now imagine that the extension agent returns the following month only to find that the farmers and all their animals have departed in search of fresh pasture and water. If he manages to catch them up, he will likely find a different and largely unfamiliar set of challenges, resulting not least from their mobility itself. This is the difficulty of providing extension to nomadic pastoralists using a system designed for settled farmers.

Camel and donkey herd
Camel and donkey herd

It was to meet such challenges that FARM-Africa devised a radically new approach to extension for pastoralist communities in northern Kenya 16 years ago. At the heart of the approach were 'mobile outreach camps', each staffed by a team that included trainers, researchers, and health service providers, both veterinary and medical. The camp buildings were traditional tukuls (Somali-style huts made from woven branches and palm fronds), and canvas tents, providing office, meeting rooms and living accommodation for staff and trainees. Constructed around an enclosure or boma, home to a demonstration camel herd, they take only a few hours to dismantle and re-erect, allowing the camp staff to keep pace with the ever moving pastoralists. Two such camps were established under the project, serving communities in the districts of Samburu, Marsabit and Moyale.

Lessons learned

In the early years of the project, the demonstration herd was a key part of the extension work, used for teaching practical techniques in camel management and health care, and for improved milk and meat production. A key contribution of the herd was that it kept the extension work 'honest': if textbook theories failed in practice, it soon became apparent from the condition of the animals. The herd offered opportunity for livestock improvement, with community members bringing their female animals to be served by the prime stud bulls resident in the boma. Perhaps most significantly, the herd created common ground between extension team and herders, and out of their interaction grew mutual trust.

In time the project evolved to address additional needs, including aspects of rangeland management, development of micro-enterprises and even human health care. However, to cater for these different and increased needs, camp staff numbers grew and camp mobility declined and whereas previously the camps had moved three or four times annually, only one move per year became the norm. This meant that the camps were no longer able to serve the needs of the most remote communities. So, to re-establish community contact, smaller teams were formed, using the main camp as a base but travelling more widely to implement a range of activities, including health demonstrations, temporary clinics and vaccination campaigns.

Flexibility the key

Flexibility and responsiveness are crucial in extension for nomadic communities. By living in close proximity to the pastoralists, project staff could fit meetings and workshops around their daily activities, such as herding, milking and praying. And, when workshops lasted several days, community members stayed at the camp, providing an environment for learning that was cost-effective and free of distractions, unlike town-based workshops. Discussions could be relaxed and unhurried, extending into informal evening sessions and greatly assisting two-way learning.

The close relationship between camp staff and community also helped to ensure that the services and training provided by the camp were a direct response to real needs. Indeed, an attempt to introduce some appropriate, but 'unrequested', technologies, (including pit latrines and rubbish pits, and solar-powered and fuel efficient stoves), proved one of the least successful aspects of the project. It had been thought that giving workshop participants practical experience of these technologies would result in high adoption rates, but very few took them up. 'Appropriateness', like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.

While the mobile outreach approach proved both effective and popular, it does require a very high level of staff commitment. Working in a close team and with remote communities was extremely rewarding, but the lack of facilities and entertainment could lead to boredom, social tension and indiscipline. Some staff also felt they were losing touch with developments in their professional field, others that their family life was being disrupted. Several development agencies have found it difficult to recruit suitable camp staff - one reason why wider adoption is uncertain. Nevertheless, sharing the lessons learned from the project, and involving both government and NGO extension staff in the training workshops, has led to a renewed understanding of nomadic pastoralism, a system which continues to be the most effective and sustainable way of using a country's arid grazing lands.

Date published: May 2004


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