Skilling Up Agricultural Labour

By Vinod Moonesinghe

Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector, particularly its traditional paddy cultivation segment, has failed to develop adequately. This in turn has held back development in other sectors, particularly industry, by failing to provide a market for industrial goods, to provide cheap food for the industrial workers, and to release workers to the labour market. 

Low labour productivity has been a key issue in this underdevelopment (although yields per acre have proved far better than that of Indo-Chinese countries). Whereas a quarter of the labour force works in agriculture, the sector accounts for only about 8% of the economy. Even making allowances for the wealth produced by workers in agriculture, which is appropriated by middlemen, these figures indicate the degree of improvement required in labour productivity.

Improving productivity

Although Sri Lanka carried out progressive agrarian legislation in the past, such as the Paddy Lands Act and the Land Reform, the average holding size remains uneconomic, and farmers have lacked the wherewithal to introduce labour-saving technologies.

In general, the farming and planting communities have very conservative and traditionalist outlooks, which makes innovation extremely difficult. The uptake of new techniques or new machinery has tended to be top-down, with the state playing a leading role. The degree of the conservatism of even the more advanced plantation community may be observed by its rejection of the 1953 recommendation by the engineering consultant to the U.K.s’ Royal Agricultural Society, S.J. Wright to simplify mechanised tea cultivation by replanting in rows rather than clumps.

Among the causes of the failure of the recent (rather too rapid) introduction of compulsory organic agriculture, the failure of farmers to adapt stands out. Despite government grants, many failed to make adequate compost. Others used hybrid seed material, intended for use with inorganic agrochemicals, and which fails to respond to organic nourishment.

The lack of interest in growing paddy or other crops, on the part of the younger generation places another critical issue before the agriculture sector. The agrarian labour force faces a growing ageing problem. In future, the agricultural sector must not only appeal to the young, but especially to the tech-savvy. It will need bolstering by a cadre of skilled workers to maintain and repair a transformed aggregation of agricultural machinery and equipment.

Agriculture, worldwide, stands on the brink of a disruptive transformation, possibly the greatest since the introduction of mechanised farming by Jethro Tull in 18th century Britain. Ages-old techniques of agriculture will adjust to new technologies: for example, smart farming, in which sensors report remotely on soil conditions and hydration requirements, monitored by autonomous drones, and machines apply optimal nutrients, tailored to plant DNA.

Training infrastructure

This transformation will require a far-reaching renovation of the agricultural workforce. Own-account farmers as well as workers need retraining and re-education. At the same time, managerial and support personnel need to be upskilled.

In the plantation sector, executives and agricultural extension officers need to be drawn increasingly from among agronomy graduates and diploma-holders, rather than from the ranks of cricket- or rugby-playing public-school leavers. Workers would also need to be retrained and re-educated, and attractions must be provided to prevent the drain of labour away from the estates. At the same time, alternative employment must be found for the workers made redundant by mechanisation. 

The training infrastructure for the agricultural sector comprises the agriculture faculties of the universities and several training institutions spread out across ministries. These include in-service training institutes, agriculture schools, special training centres and the Farm Mechanisation Training Centre. Several vocational training institutions have training programmes for agriculture-related trades, such as the Department of Technical Education and Training which also (along with the Ceylon German Technical Training Institute and the Vocational Training Authority) offers courses in agricultural machinery and equipment. In addition to this, various government institutions hold farmer training courses from time to time. The private sector also has training programmes, but these are often centred on the use of company products, such as inorganic fertilisers and pesticides. The Technical and Vocational Education Commission provides quality assurance for those courses not covered by the university system.

At the apex of the agricultural training pyramid stands the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute (H.A.R.T.I.). Established in 1972, H.A.R.T.I. aims to fortify the agrarian sector through research and training. Recognised as the foremost national-level institution in generating and disseminating knowledge relating to the use of land and water for sustainable development, it carries out socio-economic research and has built up the training infrastructure for farmers, field workers and managers. However, chronically under-funded, it lacks the personnel and resources to carry out its mandate effectively.

The plantation sector has several research and development institutions, such as the Tea Research Institute, the Rubber Research Institute, and the Coconut Research Institute, which carry out training programmes and provide extension services for technology transfer. In addition, the National Institute of Plantation Management carries out training programmes and academic courses, also conferring professional membership on plantation executives.

Agricultural extension 

The agricultural extension system, which owes its expansion to the food shortages of the Second World War, provides the most knowledge to farmers on upgrading and modernising their techniques. Originally, the system employed people with practical training, but now also provides useful and appropriate employment for agricultural graduates and diploma holders.

A 2007 World Bank report, Reviving Sri Lanka’s Agricultural Research and Extension System had this to say:

“To bring about change in the shortest possible time, the agricultural sector requires a more responsive extension system that provides enhanced support for the adoption of available technologies (both locally generated and imported). To sustain the efficacy of research and extension over time, Sri Lanka needs to recognise that agriculture is becoming a knowledge-intensive sector, and it needs to invest in mechanisms for generating and applying technologies in a user context.”

Following the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987, devolution of power to the provincial councils led, two years later, to the decentralisation of agricultural extension services to provincial departments of agriculture and livestock. Later, many extension workers were transferred under the purview of the Ministry of Public Administration. These changes disrupted the entire agricultural extension system, and not in a positive way.  Now, several ministries, government departments, research institutions, autonomous and semi-autonomous bodies, and non-governmental organisations as well as private firms, handle agricultural extension services, independently of one another.

Many extension workers have been burdened with tasks unconnected to agricultural extension. The process of information communication between policy makers, researchers, extension workers, traders and farmers has suffered, along with co-ordination between institutions. The government does not offer policy guidance or effective quality assurance for a diverse range of fragmented, uneven, and very complicated to comprehend extension activities. Extension services for non-traditional crops, introduced during promotions of such crops, invariably collapse on the withdrawal of the promotions.

The fact that an extension officer must cover between 1,000 and 7,000 farmers further complicates the issue. Although, historically, extension services have worked with farmer committees and community-based organisations, which made them a Sri Lankan success story, at present these do not participate in programme preparation. All this, consequently, confuses and frustrates farmers, who often do not know which institution to approach for extension assistance. 

Employment

A 2019 study by R.M.M.H.K. Rambodagedara and J.A.U.P. Jayasinghe, of H.A.R.T.I. into the extent of absorption of agriculture graduates and diploma holders into the agricultural sector, and their contribution towards the country’s agricultural development, had both positive and negative results. They discovered that graduates and diploma holders from mainstream agriculture faculties of national universities and schools of agriculture, found employment readily, by comparison with national-level youth employment in general.

However, the actual contribution of agriculture graduates to the field in which they received their education proved to be less than satisfactory. Most had been recruited as teachers, and the remainder had found employment in managerial, technical, and associated professions. Direct agriculture-related jobs provided fewer opportunities, while the absence of gender equity in recruitment, inadequate work-related amenities, tedious and privation-laden employment, all militated against them receiving appointments and making a positive contribution. 

A major issue also emerged from the study: agriculture graduates, far from topping up and updating their skills and know-how after graduation, did not receive any agriculture-related knowledge or skill enhancement or training, although most did gain professional qualifications in fields other than agriculture.

The respondents to Rambodagedara and Jayasinghe’s study proposed the following actions on the part of the authorities, in relation to employment: 

  • Establish proper working conditions (ensuring freedom, decision making power motivation and indispensable facilities)
  • Provision of fair, sufficient and attractive remuneration
  • Provide opportunities to enhance necessary skills and knowledge through training 
  • Set up proper job opportunities and job duties targeting agriculture graduates 
  • Allocate duties with clear targets and responsibilities 
  • Encourage agricultural-related research and innovations 
  • Guide/encourage/facilitate graduates towards agro-entrepreneurship 
  • Make positive attitudinal changes regarding both agricultural sector and agricultural sector-related jobs. 

These proposals could form the basis of a revamping of the agriculture sector’s training, extension and support architecture, the human factor being the most crucial.

The future

The H.A.R.T.I. study showed up the inadequacies, not merely of the employment environment, but also of the education process itself. The respondents highlighted the following possible improvements:

Provide more practical learning opportunities within the academic programme

Incorporate new subjects into the curriculum, compatible with modern job market requirements and demand

Provide quality-assured on-the-job training opportunities for undergraduates and increase the time duration 

Broaden students’ knowledge of new innovations and technical expertise 

Implement programmes for skills and professional development of graduates

Build strong linkages with the private sector and other relevant organisations, to provide jobs and training opportunities 

Provide comprehensive and complete knowledge on majoring modules
Provide a balanced mix of practical and theoretical knowledge 

These recommendations indicate that agriculture-related courses currently lack adequate practical components, and that the theoretical aspect has not been updated. 

Obviously, a thorough upgrade and modernisation of the entire process of education and training is required, up to and including during employment. The Minister of Education, Susil Premajayantha, said recently that agricultural research has the most PhDs, but has failed to deliver adequate improvements in agriculture. This may be explained by the failure to provide agriculture sector support cadres with up-to-date knowledge of innovations, which could be passed on to agriculturalists in the field.

The information and telecommunications technology (ICT) sector does have a two-decade old initiative, intended to create a “cyber extension” structure to support the existing agricultural extension system which could be developed – especially in the context of the rapid technological transformation expected in the not-too-distant future. This set-up embraces some key elements and outputs such as toll-free agriculture advisories, e-marketing databases, CD-ROMS for delivering electronic crop-based information, and economical interactive audio-visual media. The system also utilises agricultural e-learning methods, distance learning mechanisms for agricultural research and production assistants and digital training materials. Farmers need to be trained, not only in agricultural methods, but in handling and benefitting from digital devices.

The lack of opportunity for advancement, and the dearth of educational facilities in agrarian regions, makes the young people in those areas highly appreciative of opportunities for education, particularly for employment-oriented education – this is indicated by the popular response to new agricultural machinery technician courses. This enthusiasm may be harnessed, not only to provide new skills to the next generation of farmers and agriculture-related diploma holders and graduates, but also to re-imagine the entire agricultural sector, both in image and in structure.

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