Opportunities and challenges of ecologising extension service at the farm level, Mitheru agro-ecosystem, Meru Souh District, Kenya
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Environmental degradation remains a pressing challenge in most Kenya's agroecosystems, despite existence of extension service since pre-colonial period. The current extension service emphasises yield maximisation with environmental sustainability being largely driven by other players like civil society organisations. This study examined the opportunities and challenges of ecologising environmental thinking within the extension service at the farm level using Mitheru Location, Meru South District, Kenya as a case study. A total of 172 farmers were randomly selected and interviewed on pertinent issues in this regard. Key respondents like the extension officers were selected purposively by virtue of being the service providers. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected and analysed using descriptive and inferential statistics. Pearson's correlation coefficient was particularly useful in assessing relationships between selected key variables in the study. The opportunities and challenges were crystallised for the purpose of intervention planning using SWOT analysis. Results showed that increasing land pressure was a critical limiting factor in implementing structural conservation measures like Cut Off Drains (COD) and planting trees for environmental conservation. To date extension services has only effectively reached 33% of the respondents. This low performance was attributed to the low numbers of extension agents compared with their large clientele. Among those receiving the extension services, 36% felt that it focussed mainly on animal production and 33% on crop production with little emphasis on environmental conservation. Farmers tended to adopt environmental conservation technologies, which were perceived to be easy to implement and offering immediate benefits such as agro-forestry. More educated farmers relied less on extension agents for information (r=-0.22, n=172, p=0.01) often sourcing from newspapers, radios and internet. These alternative sources of information were rated high in terms of integration of environmental conservation technologies (r=0.27, n=172, p=0.01). Field schools were the major approaches used in delivery of extension services. Their effectiveness in communicating ecological thinking remains limited because of the less time often allocated to environmental conservation. A SWOT analysis output of the National Agriculture and Livestock Extension Programme (NALEP) showed that farmers do appreciate farming as a business and extension agents are able to train farmers en-mass due to adopting group approaches, which translates into reduced costs and logistical challenges. However, the NALEP approach does not seem to be able to deliberately target resource-poor farmers, who are likely to shy away from group dynamics. Further, although environmental concerns have been integrated as cross cutting issues, the time allocated to them are minimal, which translates into little impact in terms of environmental conservation. Further, increasing political recognition of the interdependence of environmental quality and poverty alleviation stood out as a key opportunity in future intervention efforts while a key threat was increasing conflicts on scarce resources. From a policy perspective, deliberate efforts are needed to implement sustainability thinking in the entire extension package. This calls for a paradigm shift that views agro-ecosystems as primary life-support systems, with crop and livestock production activities as sub-components thereof.