In recent years agricultural science has steadily advanced in Central Asia and the Caucasus (CAC). Supported by international research centers working as the CGIAR Regional Program for Sustainable Agricultural Development in the region, national research institutes have developed and introduced a large number of improved varieties of crops and technologies. Today science, and especially multi-disciplinary research, has a lot to offer to farmers.
Yet innovations take considerable time to reach a large number of farmers and other land users. As a result, the uptake of technologies and practices has been slow. There are, of course, knowledge-sharing and capacity-building efforts within bigger agricultural development initiatives. But their reach and scope is often limited by a sector, crop or geographic area. Strong government support is available for cotton and wheat in some countries.
This means a sustainable system is needed to reach out to farmers. And this is the function of extension and advisory services or EAS for short, which play a significant role in agricultural development for food and nutrition security. EAS contribute to agricultural innovation by developing networks, organizing producers, facilitating access to credit, inputs and output services, promoting gender equality, facilitating knowledge management, supporting adaptation to climate change and disseminating new knowledge through training and demonstrations to farmers.
In CAC, however, linkages between research and farming are limited and fragmented, and EAS are still nascent. What is more, there is usually no legislation governing rural advisory services. The problem gets some episodic attention from donors and international organizations. With this aid, a few non-governmental centers and enterprises on EAS have been set up to date, specifically in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But EAS lack a systematic approach in most countries of the region. The unsystematic level of interaction undermines the ability of farmers to access and introduce innovative technologies and practices on their farms, and thus deprives them of innovation-based opportunities to improve their productivity, profitability and livelihoods. This is why the Central Asia and the Caucasus Association of Agricultural Research Institutes (CACAARI) and the Central Asia and the Caucasus Forum for Rural Advisory Services (CAC-FRAS), an informal regional platform of the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS), have joined efforts and taken joint actions towards strengthening rural advisory services in the region. This work pursues the shared goals of learning from each other, developing common approaches, and coordinating efforts to strengthen agricultural innovation systems.
In 2014 an alliance of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Modernizing Extension and Advisory Services (MEAS), CACAARI, GFRAS, and GFAR initiated assessments of the current status, challenges and opportunities of the EAS systems in all eight countries. The objectives were to better understand the different models of delivery and financing systems across the agricultural production systems, to provide an assessment of what are the factors leading to successes or failures of various approaches, and to draw recommendations for strengthening EAS systems and adopting policies that enable effective EAS implementation. Based on the results of these assessments, national consultations were held in November and December 2014.
These results were also presented by eight countries at a regional conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In collaboration with the GFAR, MEAS, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), IFPRI and other partners, CACAARI and CAC-FRAS convened a joint Regional Conference on Rural Advisory Services between 17 and 21 November 2014. The conference brought together more than 100 agricultural scientists and practitioners, representatives of ministries, government and non-governmental organizations. It helped to develop a common approach to the planning of joint activities aimed at the development of EAS, current and expected problems caused by the impact of climate change on agro-ecosystems, the establishment and improvement of institutional mechanisms for the exchange of experience and knowledge. More importantly, the conference laid the groundwork for inclusive multi-stakeholder policy dialogue (see here).
The ongoing dialogue and collaboration has recently contributed to positive new developments in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. For example, Agriculture Minister of Tajikistan Qosim Rohbar issued a decree on 15 December 2014 to establish an extension and advisory services center to coordinate all rural advisory services in the country. In Azerbaijan the government launched reforms to support rural advisory services. On 17 April 2015 President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on improving facilities and resources of research institutions under the Ministry of Agriculture of Azerbaijan (see here). Under the presidential decree, 10m Azerbaijani manats (around 9.5m USD) will be allocated to the Ministry of Agriculture from the Reserve Fund of the President of Azerbaijan for reconstruction and equipment.
Moreover, the Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan also issued a decree on 17 April 2015 on improving the structure of the Agrarian Scientific Center and affiliated research institutes. Among other changes, the decree stipulates renaming the Agrarian Scientific Center "the Center of Agrarian Science, Information and Advisory Services of the Ministry of Agriculture".
This progress is a result of several years of collaboration between national research institutions and policymakers, often supported by international research and development organizations and networks. It also shows how important government support is to make things happen. It is hoped that other countries will follow suit and the EAS systems in the region will receive a renewed impetus. After all, to make agricultural production sustainable, it is necessary to make its key element, that is rural extension and advisory services, sustainable too.