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Enhancing district delivery and management of agriculture extension in Lao PDR

Connell, John G.; Case, Peter


John G. Connell


Background and methodology
Lao PDR has a well-established network of central, provincial and district agricultural extension units. The extension system has benefited from several decades of Official Development Assistance (ODA) projects which have helped establish appropriate models of production and extension methods. The District Agriculture and Forestry Office (DAFO) administrators, however, have been by-passed by much of this work. As a result, they lack knowledge and practical experience of extension management and, as a corollary, they have not been trusted by Government of Lao (GoL) authorities to receive/manage state-allocated funds. The result has been a stifling of the potential of frontline extension service delivery with deleterious consequences for smallholder farmers’ livelihoods and well-being.
This project aimed to address this problem by developing an Extension Management System (EMS) and guidelines for implementing a newly mandated set of comprehensive extension interventions, referred to in shorthand as farmer learning (FL), farmer organization (FO) and market engagement (ME). The project strategy was to enable selected DAFO in pilot study districts to operate with relative autonomy in the co-design, implementation and refinement of a set of EMS tools. Achieving demonstrable outcomes and impacts from such independent action would thus demonstrate DAFO’s capacity to perform well and also carry the prospect of persuading GoL authorities to invest in extension services. This strategy informed the three project objectives.
The design was operationalised by selecting two pilot DAFO in each of two provinces: Thaphabath and Bolikhan in Bolikhamxai province, and Khun and Nong Het in Xieng Kuang province (with an expansion district of Paek added at a later stage). These districts encompassed a range of agro-ecological conditions and were also characterized by varying access to markets and differing staff capacities. Project inputs were limited to: (a) the provision of operating funds of $3-5000 AUD per year to each DAFO; (b) draft EMS tools; and, (c) six-monthly exchange meetings. No training inputs were provided. In all the pilot sites, the project worked within an extension context of farmers transitioning from traditional subsistence systems to commercial production.
The project was based within the Planning Section of the Department of Agricultural Extension and Cooperatives (DAEC) of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF).

Results and Impacts
Applying the first of a set of EMS tools (EMS 1#, see below) the pilot DAFO selected four products with a range of production and marketing characteristics: commercial rice, coffee, organic vegetables and chickens. The five DAFO all generated substantial extension outcomes (detailed in Table 1, p.24). Yields in the final year of the project (2016) can be briefly summarized:
Commercial rice (two districts): 300 HHs produced an additional 1000 t
Coffee (projected harvest): 691 HHs produced additional 300 t (red-cherry)
Organic vegetable: 188 HHs produced additional 10 t
Chickens: 221 HHs produced additional 8.4 t
The bulk of the additional output in each case was gained only after the DAFO began to apply integrated comprehensive extension (FL/FO/ME) effectively. In effect, they represent the result of only two years of relatively effective extension. When these results are translated into the benefits gained by HHs, for the rice farmers this was equivalent to double their average annual HH consumption expenditures. For the coffee, vegetable and chicken farmers it was two thirds their average annual HH consumption expenditures.
The monetary value of this additional production output over the four years of the project is 1.7 M AUD. As important as the improved production and economic impacts of the project is the fact that, in each district, the foundations and networks for dynamic commercial production has now been established. This should ensure that, at least at the local level, there is a sustainable basis for future progress.
The key factor that contributed to these results was the application of the ME and FO elements of comprehensive extension. In the first two years, the DAFO chose to focus their interventions on FL. When it recognized that this traditional extension approach was failing to mobilise farmers, they then began to apply all three components of comprehensive extension in 2015 and through 2016. It was in these two years that the bulk of the extension outcomes was gained. A major finding of the project (detailed in Section 7) is that comprehensive extension is more effective when applied as MEFOFL, where:
ME – activities enable farmers to become aware of market opportunities (higher prices and better trading conditions when dealing with larger traders), understand the market/trader requirements (volume, quality and scheduling), and know the key actors and their contacts, so they can select and negotiated themselves.
(Which leads to)
FO – accessing improved trading requires farmers to deal in volume and supply products of consistent quality. As a result, farmers recognise they must work cooperatively in both planning production and then bulking and trading their product
(Which leads to)
FL – seeking means to increase output, improve quality and, in some instances, to produce on new schedules to meet market demand.

While many extension and development initiatives have applied these elements, rarely has it been done in such an integrated manner by regular frontline extension staff. Project evidence and outcomes thus offer district authorities a pathway to establish the basis for commercialization of various smallholder farm products. This, in turn, enables the DAFO to comply with the recent GoL directive for each district to achieve commercialization of at least one product.
It should be noted that outcomes achieved by the project through implementation of ME and FO approaches occurred through relative simple ‘entry level’ interventions. Nonetheless, these would be well-suited to many areas where smallholders are transitioning from their traditional systems towards commercial production both in Laos and in the wider region.
The ME and FO elements of comprehensive extension are often regarded as difficult to facilitate and thus beyond the capacity of typical frontline DAFO staff. Key to successful application of these approaches was implementation of general principles and simple processes that enabled the farmers themselves to assess opportunities (ME) and, as a consequence, organize (FO) in order to take advantage of the perceived potential for economic gain.

Application and appreciation of the Extension Management system (EMS)
The EMS was designed to enable the DAFO to carry out core management functions:
EMS 1# Opportunity identification and priority product selection
EMS 2# FL/FO/ME Guidelines.
EMS 3# Planning Districtwide Extension
EMS 4# Reporting Extension Results
EMS 5# Field Accounting
Two further tools were designed to assist DAFO Heads in their overall management of the DAFO as a unit.
EMS 6# Roles and Responsibilities
EMS 7# Human Resource Management

When applied by the DAFO staff, the tools enabled them to manage their extension delivery independently over four production cycles. Small changes were made to the content of the tools based on DAFO feedback. These staff then contributed to drafting the written guidelines.
The DAFO were able to demonstrate extension’s potential to contribute to District Economic and Social Development Plan (DESDP) through application of EMS 1# and EMS 2#. Their reporting of progress against plans (EMS 4#) then demonstrated the efficacy of comprehensive extension. As a result, by the close of the project, administrators from all districts explicitly accepted that DAFO plans for comprehensive extension applications should be part of future DESDPs.
Application of EMS contributed to enhancing the capacity and professional commitment of the DAFO staff, in particular: (a) ownership and responsibility for their work; (b) a shift in their orientation from conducting activities to gaining results; and, (c) shifting the relationship of staff with farmers from being directive to facilitative. Such changes arguably could not be achieved through a didactic training regime.

Mechanisms for scaling-out EMS and FL/FO/ME
Operating funds for DAFO are a cornerstone for enabling delivery of extension services. Without financial support, extension delivery cannot take place regardless of how effective the methodologies, or how capable the staff. This has been an aspect of development that many projects have sidestepped.
The current project provided local authorities with evidence of regional revenues that could be generated and was also able to report on relatively high rates of ‘return on investment’ (RoI). The latter was achieved by comparing DAFO costs with the revenues generated (RoI ratios for the pilot DAFO ranged from 5:1 to 20:1). As a result, district and provincial authorities across all sites agreed that funding for extension from national budgets was justified and would be sought.
GoL’s local-level recognition of the efficacy of DAFO extension delivery and acceptance of responsibility to ensure they receive operating funds from domestic sources is a notable achievement of the project. Such results confirm the broad strategy of the project design as outlined above.
A key challenge is whether models applied under project guidance can be applied more generally and without external support. The robust nature of the EMS and FL/FO/ME processes was demonstrated by DAFOs’ consistent application of the tools/guidelines and the results gained across the pilot districts and products. Further confirmation of this came through scaling-out activities: an additional district coordinated by Provincial Agricultural Extension and Cooperatives Service (PAECS) staff in Xieng Khuang and an additional province, Khammuane, overseen by DAEC staff.
A second challenge concerns what investment (time, funds, and staff) must be made available to rollout new models. The project concluded that enhanced DAFO performance and successful outcomes were achieved by enabling elements of an ‘institutional ecology’ (Section 7.3.4) to develop and thrive. This extension ecology consisted in:
- EMS: this provides pragmatic tools for DAFO staff to manage and deliver extension services over a number of seasons
- Leadership: the DAFO staff require the sanction of an authority figure within their system (e.g., District Governor) to allow them to work and make operational decisions with confidence.
- Working within broader organisational frameworks: the districtwide plans led the DAFO staff to be results-orientated and then to appreciate the value of comprehensive extension. Peer networking between districts gives staff a greater sense of professional identify and opportunity for organisational learning.
- Secure operating funds: Continuity of funding over several season allowed DAFO to plan, operate, learn, and report consistently.
In other words, rather than having to embark on a program of expensive and time-consuming training exercises, DAFO performance can be improved by modifying elements of the supporting institutional ecology. Proposing alterations to the institutional ecology carries other challenges but the project was careful to align its activities with current GoL policies and procedures and so minimised such risks.
Given senior GoL recognition of the potential for enabling DAFO to generate significant results in a relatively autonomous way, DAEC, in collaboration with the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI), have drafted a policy brief to submit to MAF.

Conclusion and Recommendations
The project has shown that DAFO can be effective in extension service delivery through the application of integrated comprehensive extension: ME FO FL. This is of significance in Laos and, potentially, globally as national extension services struggle to assert their relevance and efficacy. The project demonstrated that when relative effectiveness is appropriately evidenced and reported, recognition by local authorities can be forthcoming. Moreover, in the case of Laos, these authorities now acknowledge that there is a justifiable case for domestic funding of extension.
The new elements of comprehensive extension, FO and ME, are generally regarded as requiring high levels of facilitation skills that are far beyond the capability of typical frontline DAFO staff. Findings from the current project challenges this assumption. It indicates that the DAFO staff do have the latent capacity to apply EMS and comprehensive extension. These skills can be elicited and enhanced, furthermore, by mentoring and support from PAECS and DAEC. Finally, project findings indicate that there might be a cost-effective pathway for out-scaling project results nationally.
The application of a strategy to intervene in and modify the institutional ecology that supports extension opens the possibility of fast-tracking the introduction of EMS and comprehensive extension. This strategy, however, remains untested. It is thus recommended that a new project be designed that would build on the results gained to date and directly trial the proposed intervention strategy on a much wider scale. If the strategy were to prove effective, then it would offer a rapid and cheap means to achieve significant improvements to extension nationwide. This approach should also have potential to be applied to extension systems in many other countries in the region.


Connell, J. G., & Case, P. (2017). Enhancing district delivery and management of agriculture extension in Lao PDR

Report Type Project Report
Publication Date Sep 1, 2017
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
ISBN 9781863200844
Keywords agricultural extension, rural development, Laos, Lao PDR, farmer organisations, farmer learning, market engagement, international development
Publisher URL