The Importance Of Extension 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m in Malawi as part of the Leave For Change program working with a not-for-profit agency called the Agricultural Reasearch and Extension Trust (ARET). Their mission, in a nutshell, is to help farmers in Malawi to produce the best yields possible given economic and environmental challenges. As part of my mandate, I joined one of the communication staff from ARET at today’s Strengthening Agriculture and Nutrition Extension event in Nathenje, just south of Lilongwe. It was a fantastic event that effectively relaunched extension efforts in the country, followed by a display of traditional dances and costumes from the local village. It was an incredible experience that I’m incredibly grateful to have witnessed. 

I’ll be honest, when I first read the word Extension in my partner agency’s name, I really wasn’t sure what it meant. Fortunately after my read of their strategic mandate, and my meeting with their director, its definition became clear. Extension was another way of saying knowledge mobilization (KM) or knowledge translation and transfer (KTT). That is, extension is the act of making scientific knowledge actionable by anyone who may benefit from it. This may mean converting scientific findings to policy, or translating the findings in a way that someone outside a particular discipline would be able to understand, or converting the findings into a set of actionable items that can be used in the real world. 

Amazingly, it’s not as easy as it sounds. In reality we are faced with extension (good and bad) almost daily. We hear, for example, that eating chocolate will help us lose weight (I wish), only to learn that the science isn’t quite so robust or clear cut despite the catchy headline. Our doctors tell us that our overly processed sugar-filled diets are leading to increasing obesity numbers, but we still reach for the ice cream or the second helping of pie (mmmm pie). In many cases we aren’t given sufficient ownership of the findings to act on them because they aren’t presented in a way that speaks to our experience. Or we are overwhelmed with too many conflicting and poorly constructed (albeit eye catching) headlines. The science may be there, but the messaging is either wrong, or not actionable.

In class, specifically the ICON classroom that Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs and I co-created a few years back, we attempt to teach students not only about extension (although we call it KTT and KM), but how to achieve it. The reasons we do this range from the obvious; universities don’t typically teach this despite a need for it in industry, to the perhaps less obvious; if we are to solve some of our bigger social issues (e.g. food security, energy conservation, sustainable living, climate change) we have to recognize that we’ll require our best brains from all of our varied disciplines, both academic and non-academic, working together in a transdisciplinary space. This can only happen if the best brains can share their knowledge and experiences in a way that makes the information actionable by at least a subset of the group. This doesn’t mean that one expert trains the others to be experts in the same domain; it means that one expert relays knowledge from their domain to another expert in a manner that they can put it to use. The effect is much like a think-tank that allows experts of all sorts to develop solutions that transcend their own discipline. 

When I began developing the ICON classroom with Dr. Jacobs, I firmly believed in the need to develop KTT and KM skills in the students that pass through my classrooms. I felt an urgency based on a desire to develop solutions to protect and improve our collective futures. I felt an urgency because of big problems that I know we can fix if we just get off our collective butts and do something about them. But it was an urgency based on developing new technologies or new solutions to the really big problems we know about, and those just around the corner that we haven’t the imagination to predict.

Interestingly, my time so far in Malawi has changed my tune slightly. That’s not to say I think KTT and KM are no longer skills worthy of pursuing. Quite the contrary. My experiences in Malawi, the things I’ve learned and seen here, have increased my sense of urgency. These skills are needed now, to address very serious issues we already know how to solve. 

Last year almost 3 million Malawians required food assistance. That is, almost 20% of the population was food insecure. This year that number is expected to double. Why? Climate change and the unpredictable weather patterns it brings is a huge factor. So is the poor financial situation of a population that makes on average about $1.25 US per day. But mixed in with this (and other factors I haven’t described) is a disconnect between the agricultural science and best practices, and what’s actually happening in the field. Where farmers would be best served by planting and watering their seeds a week before the rains come, they instead revert to tradition resulting in lower yield. Fertilizers aren’t applied in the doses or at times that best serve the crops, and pests destroy harvests because various controls haven’t been put into place. All this because the science hasn’t been passed on in a way that meaningfully speaks to the farmers. 

But it’s not a one way street. Innovations and adaptations borne of hands-in-the-dirt ingenuity that happen in the field every day aren’t making their way to the scientists and extension officers to share with other farmers. Relevant and meaningful questions that are grown from long term observations on the farm are seemingly lost in the wind. An incredible knowledge base is left on small plots of land to whither and die in the sun. All because the pathways of sharing these bits of innovation and knowledge (or relevant research questions) aren’t strong enough to support the farmers’ needs, or fail to respect the farmers’ experience. 

And sadly this means that the problem is only going to get worse unless we figure out new ways of making the science actionable by the communities of farmers who work the fields every day. 

As I said, extension isn’t easy. It requires understanding the audience, a shared respect for each other’s unique expertise (whether academic or not), an openness to dialogue, a sense of self reflection and self critique to honestly identify and deal with our discipline specific biases, and the drive to work through periods of intense discomfort and frustration and awkwardness that often come just before a eureka moment. 

Fortunately ARET recognizes this, and they are working hard to make a difference so that the farmers of Malawi have the best tools and techniques to produce the best crops they can. My work here will hopefully help them build on the incredible extension work they already do. 

Extension, KTT, KM – whatever you want to call it – are a set of skills I believe are absolutely essential for any university graduate. In fact I’d suggest we should be building these skills long before a student steps onto campus. Now more than ever, I’m convinced the world we live in demands it. 

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