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Cost Effectiveness and Service Quality of Video-Enabled Agricultural Extension

Rationale of the Study: 

Agricultural extension provides critical access to the knowledge and information that farmers need to increase the productivity and sustainability of their production systems. Yet, the delivery of cost–effective agriculture extension remains an ongoing challenge in many countries, including India. The functions of extension have been broadened to a form of adult education in which internalization of new knowledge results in social and behavioral changes. This study proposes to document and assess a video-enabled extension approach promoted by Digital Green to determine (1) its cost-effectiveness and (2) its scalability with respect to cost and service quality across the diversity of its partners in India.

Background of Digital Green: 

Preliminary research suggests that the key role of Digital Green video-enabled model is to increase the effectiveness of existing extension systems. The unique components of Digital Green’s approach include: (1) integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) into existing civil society and public sector extension systems; (2) use of local social networks to connect village-level intermediaries in rural and remote communities with content experts, program managers, and researchers at a district-level; (3) a participatory process for the local production of short learning videos by and for farmers aimed at capturing and sharing the adoption of new or improved practices; (4) the dissemination of videos within similar communities, involving facilitated discussion, training and supervision; (5) a hardware and software technology platform to exchange videos, usage data, and community feedback in areas with limited Internet and electrical grid connectivity; and (6) an iterative model to progressively better address the needs and interests of the community with web-based analytical tools and interactive voice response (IVR) phone-based feedback channels. Because the Digital Green approach is effectively an amplification of existing extension efforts, scaling up depends on having an already active extension partner in the targeted geography. Digital Green’s approach is to “train the trainers.” It identifies interested extension organizations and teaching them the Digital Green approach, handholding partner organizations until they operate its model independently.

From 2008-2011, Digital Green’s approach scaled up rapidly in India to 1,000 villages across six states with the extension systems of seven non-governmental organization partners: PRADAN, VARRAT, and PRAGATI in Orissa; SPS, ASA, and ACCESS in Madhya Pradesh; and BAIF in Karnataka. Digital Green adapted its model to the variable organizational and operational structures of these extension systems as well as the farming communities that they work with. Some of its partners, for instance, have a centralized decision-making process while others decentralized; some focus on particular value chains and others are more holistic; some use T&V and others FFS; and some work exclusively with women and others entire households. The communities that these extension agencies work with are even more diverse. For example, some communities belong to self-help groups and others not; some are rain-dependent and others irrigated; and some are tribal and others caste-based.

Component 1 - Cost Effectiveness: 

Though agriculture extension has been shown to have a 41% internal rate of return, rigorous evaluations remain surprisingly few.[i] The classical Training & Visit (T&V) extension approach, for example, is considered expensive and limited in effectiveness. In 2005, India’s National Sample Survey Organization survey found that only 7% of farmers accessed information from extension workers.[ii] Farmer Field Schools (FFS) have gained popularity as an alternative to T&V, but while studies applaud their effectiveness against T&V, they also doubt their long-term cost-effectiveness or ability to scale-up. This first component of the study will assess the cost-effectiveness of Digital Green’s extension approach. Pilot studies of Digital Green suggest that it is ten times as cost-effective as T&V in motivating farmers to take up new practices.[iii] The combination of videos with non-expert, but trained mediators permits the most expensive cost of T&V – the expert extension officer – to be spread across a wider population. Digital Green’s approach aims to accelerate the take-up of new agricultural practices and technologies. This component will describe the programmatic and financial variations of the Digital Green model as well as its cost-effectiveness with respect to rates of adoption with each of its seven partners for the 2008-2011 period. Where possible, this assessment will compare the efficiency of Digital Green’s video-enabled model with the conventional extension systems of its partners.

Component 2 – Quality of service as a function of Cost and Scale: 

 To improve and optimize an extension system’s contribution to rural livelihoods, it is essential to monitor and evaluate its strengths and weakness. Digital Green employs a rigorous quality assurance strategy that captures usage data and farmer feedback on near real-time basis to assess the processes and outcomes of its interventions. If farmers have a choice, they will use the extension providers that they trust and which deliver services according to the farmers’ own criteria for quality. These can be factors such as: timeliness, efficient and innovative advice, respectful attitudes, and strong links within the value chains. In this second component of the study, independent consultants and a researcher from International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) will identify farmers’ criteria for quality through focus group discussions and evaluate the extent to which these are met by the services supported by Digital Green and its partners in a sample set of field sites. In addition, Digital Green will perform quality assurance assessments based on data from its partners and its own surveys to evaluate how the skills, capacities and attitudes of its partner extension agents and community-level intermediaries have developed to institutionalize the approach. A common issue amongst extension systems is that new methodologies and approaches are introduced without the staff being adequately trained in applying them. This training typically increases the costs of extension. A comparative analysis will be used to determine if there is a relation between service quality parameters and cost per adoption of new practices. In addition, since some of Digital Green’s partners have deployed its approach in more villages than others, the relation between quality of service and scale will also be studied.

MEAS Relevance: 

If Digital Green’s cost-effectiveness is borne out, the impact for agricultural extension policy worldwide is considerable, though caveats around external validity will apply. Though Digital Green is limited to regions with extension systems that are already in place, it could dramatically reduce the cost-per-adoption of existing extension efforts, adding a cost-effective option for agricultural extension that outperforms T&V, FFS, and other forms of extension in the developing world. Our focus on cost-effectiveness, quality of service, and scalability will bring to the fore the importance of these characteristics in the use of ICTs in extension. We hope that it will inform future MEAS efforts, which in turn will have cascading impact downstream. Over a six-month period, Digital Green will work with independent consultants and researchers to submit a final case study by December 31, 2012.

[i] Roseboom, J. 2004. Agricultural research and extension funding levels required to meet the Anti-Hunger Programme objectives. Manuscript prepared for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Rijswijk, The Netherlands.

[ii] NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation). 2005. Situation assessment survey of farmers: Access to modern technology for farming, 59th round (January–December 2003). Report No. 499(59/33/2). New Delhi: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.

[iii] Gandhi, R., et al. 2009. Digital Green: Participatory video and mediated instruction for agricultural extension. Information Technologies & International Development. 5(1): 1–15.