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Press Release 
Gerhard Backeberg 
Water Research Commission empowers irrigation extension officers

The Water Research Commission has taken on the fight against the deterioration of the skills of agricultural irrigation extension officers by researching and developing a new set of training guidelines.

According to Dr Gerhard Backeberg, Executive Manager: Water Utilisation in Agriculture at the Water Research Commission (WRC), the link between agricultural extension officers and the farmers that they serve has weakened in recent years, mainly because of poor training. “We found that there was no systematic, practical, in-service training provided to extension officers working on irrigation schemes,” says Dr Backeberg. “Smallholder farmers rely first and foremost on extension officers as a source of information, guidance and advice. With extension services lacking or collapsing, this essential support services cannot be provided.”

Agricultural extension officers are the intermediaries between research and farmers, and usually at the forefront of development for new farming techniques and technologies, as well as providing day-to-day advice to farmers to remain profitable and improve sustainability of their operations. The better the service of the extension officer – and the link between him/her and the farmer – the better the smallholder irrigation operation.

However, the WRC study has found that there is a general feeling amongst extension officers involved in irrigation that their training is inadequate, meaning that they are generally not equipped with the necessary knowledge to perform their tasks. “This obviously contributes to less productive smallhorder farming, which is in most cases performing below potential,” says Dr Backeberg.  While most agricultural extension officers receive their training at universities, universities of technology and agricultural colleges, very little information on irrigation is available for in-house training, and there is a general feeling that this information is also not presented in the required format and that the courses do not prepare them adequately for their tasks they have to perform on irrigation schemes. “For many extension officers this results in a lack of confidence in their credibility and a withdrawal from the communities that they are meant to serve,” says Dr. Backeberg.

The WRC’s first step to correcting the problem was to identify the essential basic knowledge that an extension officer would require to advise effectively on irrigation water management.  Through this study a 'knowledge profile' of the eight learning areas that an extension officer involved in irrigation needs to perform the necessary tasks was compiled, and the learning material for these subjects was developed by the University of Pretoria (UP). “This training material covers the main elements which directly or indirectly inform irrigation water management,” says Dr Backeberg.  The study areas identified include:

•               Soil-plant-atmosphere continuum

•               Assessing of soil resources

•               Agro-climatology

•               Irrigation water management

•               Irrigation engineering

•               Irrigation legislative context

•               Irrigation economics

•               Irrigation crop and fodder production

 “Knowledge about these issues will provide the necessary confidence for extension officers to respond to enquiries by farmers and to correctly refer questions for more detailed answers to subject matter specialists,” says Dr Backeberg. The aim of the learning material is to support tertiary training organisations such as agricultural colleges and universities of technology, offering agricultural programmes on a NQF Level 5, as well as to support training providers that offer short courses in irrigation management.

This set of guidelines is the fourth in a series of research reports compiled in recent years by the WRC, in partnership with UP, on extension in irrigation water management. A total of 93 learning modules have been included in the material that is aimed to help build the necessary skills and competencies required for extension officers to assist irrigation farmers. “The learning package covers the entire spectrum of irrigation water management. It also covers irrigation crop and fodder production as well as the general skills required for productive agricultural extension,” says Dr Backeberg.

Since July 2013, the WRC has focussed on distributing the study packages throughout agricultural colleges, FET colleges and AgriSETA-accredited and registered training providers, with the aim not only of raising awareness of the new guides, but also to encourage the application of the training modules for practical training of extension officers on all smallholder irrigation schemes in South Africa. “This research output fills a major knowledge gap by making comprehensive training modules available for in-service training. It is a timely contribution to the priority identified in the Vision for 2030 of the National Development Plan,” says Dr Backeberg.

Contact : Dr Gerhard Backeberg email: gerhardb@wrc.org.za

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