In 2013 ISF developed a first of its kind global view of the technical assistance (TA) landscape for smallholder farmers. This initial briefing note described a highly fragmented USD8 billion a year industry – where 70% of resources were channeled through public extension systems, 20% through donor funded programs, and 10% through the efforts of large multinational companies. As part of this research, ISF developed a typology of existing programs in the technical assistance landscape (see figure 1) with updated size estimates and wiki features.

ISF’s 2014 follow up briefing note Rethinking technical assistance to unlock smallholder financing identified a gap in the way that these different forms of technical assistance were helping to facilitate access to finance for smallholder farmers. At that time, only 3% of funding for agricultural technical assistance went toward helping providers develop financial solutions for farmers. Despite slow movement, there have been positive changes in the last five years, along with encouraging spots of activity across the technical assistance landscape.

Integration and coordination: Significant new trends

The integration of TA with other services – particularly financial – promises to be more effective than TA alone.  And we are seeing significant new trends across three key areas:

  • Greater focus on food systems and the role of the private sector: Overall, the design and implementation of technical assistance has experienced a significant shift from a value chain development view to a market systems view.  While this has always been core to certain types of technical assistance (e.g. certification, pre-competitive platforms) the market systems approach is becoming more mainstream and leading to more integrated technical assistance models. Examples such as Technoserve’s success with an integrated approach in their Coffee Initiative of East Africa, have been the focus of the last number of Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services global partner meetings.
  • Greater coordination around key commodities: The rise of multi-stakeholder initiatives in key crop areas such as cocoa (Cocoa-Action), palm oil (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), tea (the Ethical Tea Initiative) and coffee (the Global Coffee Platform) are bringing new levels of market insight and coordination to the design of technical assistance in key producing countries.
  • Stronger investment in TA and other support to financial service providers (FSPs): Led in part by The MasterCard Foundation’s USD175 million portfolio of grant investments in rural and agricultural finance, a new wave of programs are providing business development services (as well as sharing research and development costs) to support FSPs interested in serving smallholders. Foundation programs working with a range of local providers to develop and test financial solutions for farmers include Agrifin AccelerateAGRA FISFAPICCO STARSKiva, and the Fund for Rural Prosperity. Other efforts include CGAP’s partnerships with financial institutions to pilot new approaches for smallholder families, and the agriculture efforts of Financial Sector Deepening Africa (FSDA),

New epicenters of activity

We are also seeing bright spots of activity emerging across the landscape — from renewed attention to existing systems to new collaborations and innovations:

  • Re-energization of public extension systems: Ethiopia and Rwanda are creating a new standard for what government led programs can achieve, while countries such as Nigeria and Honduras are laying out bold new plans to try to re-energize their extension systems through training and involving a new wave of younger agro-entrepreneurs.
  • New donor efforts: The USAID-funded Developing Local Extension Capacity project and less formal Transforming Extension Initiative are new collaborations by major donors to develop and coordinate transformative efforts at scale.  These programs are important platforms for driving new approaches through traditional farmer outreach and training models.  In addition, a consortium of donors and implementers have formed an interest group for promoting digital technology for agricultural extension.  They include the World Bank and the Gates Foundation, which has developed a comprehensive new ICT4Agriculture strategy with a major focus on technology in rural advisory services.
  • Digital technology for extension: A growing number of digital service providers, over 200 enterprises and projects globally, are enabling organizations to deliver TA in innovative ways – from changing how traditional rural advisory services are delivered, to developing new participatory models, and finding ways of tailoring advice for farmers through precision technologies like remote and in-field sensors and much more timely and granular weather data. For instance, Digital Green is rapidly scaling its approach of applying video technology and intensive data collection to empower information extension and farmer-to-farmer training. In Ethiopia, the Agricultural Transformation Agency’s agricultural helpline is reaching millions of farmers each month with a new interactive voice response service. A new wave of tech firms such as Arifu and Farm Radio International are transforming the provision of advice to farmers from the ground up.

Fulfilling the promise of technical assistance: Action steps

As these developments show, progress has been made on many of the key recommendations from ISF’s research in 2013. However, we see a number of key areas where more continued concentration is needed:

  • Stronger focus on mainstreaming climate smart agriculture and nutrition, in addition to gender, as core parts of technical assistance programming.
  • Focus on sharing and pooling of data in ways that respect competition. Over time this will be an important way of standardizing metrics and measurement of results.
  • More focus on the potential of technology. There are exciting glimpses of potential, but those serving smallholders can make better use of the transformative potential of technology in delivery of TA. For instance, in the Learning Lab’s digitalization study, FSPs who had begun their digital journeys were still unlikely to have digitalized support services for farmers (stay tuned for digital service provider landscape data from the Lab).

The smallholder ecosystem model of Inflection Point identifies technical assistance providers as key players in the enabling environment for smallholder finance. While the landscape has evolved slowly, new developments and epicenters of activity mean that we are better positioned than ever before to help close the financing gap and improve livelihoods of the rural poor.

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