There is increasing concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will have dire consequences for food security unless adequate safeguards are established. Food supply chains must continue to function; the health of food system workers must be protected, and measures to ease the economic blow from lost incomes must be taken. Information, advice, and coaching for rural — as trusted rural communication and education institutions — are a critical piece of emergency response to such a crisis, providing credible information about the virus and farming advice to adapt to various shocks.
In this post, we gather lessons from past emergencies and show how Extension & Advisory Services (EAS) have adapted their education and communication for COVID-19 among regular and continued outreach. We also make recommendations for EAS for future emergencies.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time EAS have been called to action in an unfolding disaster. As an institution with trained technical staff who are trusted by communities, and with local reach and communication skills, extension has supported efforts and educated communities during crises such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, avian influenza, natural disasters, and pest infestations.
The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa caused 11,325 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and had widespread economic and social consequences. UNICEF’s communication for development (C4D) work during the Ebola crisis identified working with local journalists and community radio — part of the broader EAS community — as the most effective and flexible way to share information, allowing real-time rapid feedback from communities. In Sierra Leone, extension agents received social communication training to encourage preventive and behavior change messages through community sensitization meetings and radio discussions. Liberia developed stronger health protocols that could now help manage COVID-19.
Lesson: Capacity strengthening and the right tools and channels are necessary to provide tailored EAS messages.
Extension was instrumental in controlling another viral disease that jumped from animals to humans in Asia — avian flu. In Vietnam during the 2005-2007 outbreak, extension officers helped detect positive cases, coordinated the establishment of quarantine zones in collaboration with local authorities, and supervised the culling and destruction of infected flocks and the disinfection of affected farms. They then helped reestablish post-disaster production. Their swift and effective action helped minimize loss of human life in Vietnam caused by the H5N1 virus.
Lesson: EAS must support local producers throughout the process and along all areas of the value chains; this means they need a broad set of capacities.
In the days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, EAS responded quickly to provide COVID-19 information to rural communities and to adapt their regular outreach to the “new normal” of social distancing and noncontact communication.
In the pre-COVID-19 world, radio was already a trusted source of information for rural residents. Radio reaches over 70 percent of the world’s population and is used by EAS to reach rural people with information and advice. Evidence shows that listening to radio increases knowledge and leads to adoption of new technologies and practices. Research by BBC Media Action showed that radio consistently occupies an important informational and community-building function in disasters. Similarly, a meta-analysis by Hugelius and colleagues showed how humanitarian radio plays a major role in fostering community resilience and recovery.
Now, as many people shelter in their homes and/or try to limit contact with other people, the radio work of journalists and extension agents has become a crucial means of health and safety communication. Farm Radio International is currently working with over 1,000 radio broadcasters in Africa to ensure that myths and misinformation about COVID-19 are challenged over the airwaves, bringing critical information to listeners who may lack other credible sources.
A couple of EAS country responses to the COVID-19 crisis show how extension staff are working to spread information about the virus while continuing to share vital agricultural knowledge.
In China, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) established an EAS big data platform linked to the National Cloud Platform for Grass-Root Agricultural Technology Extension (NAECP) to mitigate the pandemic’s economic impacts, especially during spring planting season, in three ways:
Extension officers’ smartphones allow ubiquitous connection to the NAECP for knowledge sharing, management, performance appraisal, and data collection. This system requires minimal face-to-face contact between the extension and farmers, a key advantage during the outbreak.
The platform is now targeting farmers, agriculture enterprises, destitute households, and low-income families for further effectiveness during COVID-19. Local platforms such as one in Shanghai has a “fighting COVID-19” module, providing health advice for farmers.
Iran — which has been especially hard-hit in the pandemic — reported the first case of COVID-19 on February 19 and declared an emergency. The Ministry of Health and Medical Education led the outbreak’s control. A public awareness approach — including engaging EAS — through mass and electronic media (radio, TV, social media, text messages) informed the public about the virus and its prevention. The Agricultural Education and Extension Institute at the Agricultural Research, Education and Extension Organization of the Ministry of Agriculture-Jahad established a national working group on March 10 to use EAS to prevent COVID-19 in agricultural, rural, and nomadic communities. They produced materials, apps, electronic pamphlets, videos, and text messages for training and information on the outbreak.
Initial feedback from local extension staff shows that these communications reached over 7,500 extension agents, local leaders, and community-based organizations. According to Agricultural Extension Administrations, most farmers received information from mass and social media and village posters and public boards. Radio and TV programs are broadcasted several times a week to cover all communities. Extension agents use social distancing measures, postponing regular face-to-face contact, and mass media and electronic devices.
As shown above and elsewhere, quick action from governments coupled with credible, regular information is critical in dealing with emergencies such as COVID-19. As a critical actor in providing such information to rural areas, EAS can do several things globally to help mitigate the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. FAO gives some guidance on this, including raising awareness about COVID-19, advising local producers in dealing with value chain disruptions, and facilitating gender-sensitive social support.
EAS can offer support during uncertainty and sudden changes that come with the pandemic, and strategies to bounce back from shocks and enhance resilience. Some markets, such as fruits or vegetables, may disappear when flights are reduced or food export bans are enacted. Extension agents can help farmers to come up with “Plan B” (or even “C” and “D”)––as was the case in Kenya, where horticulture farmers switched to varieties in demand from local rather than international markets.
What happens after the COVID-19 crisis passes? Given the likelihood of future disease outbreaks, we must build more robust and effective extension programs that continue to function seamlessly in a crisis––helping with disease management efforts while continuing to support agricultural operations and averting food insecurity.
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