Since 1999 (2055 BS), the Swiss-funded Sustainable Soil Management Programme (SSMP), which is implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, has been promoting a decentralised extension system, the Farmer-to-Farmer approach (FtF), as a means to disseminate appropriate agricultural technologies to mid-hill farmers unreached by government extension services. The importance of this approach has been realised by district and local level stakeholders, as well as in the national policy arena.  The FtF approach aims to improve agriculture service delivery to rural farmers in Nepal, especially rural women and the disadvantaged in remote areas, which has been limited by poor access to extension services and information, poor access to and control over resources, and a lack of a gender sensitive extension system.

The Local Self Governance Act of Nepal (LSGA 2055 BS, 1999) has clearly indicated the rights and responsibilities of local bodies in relation to decentralised service delivery.  In the spirit of the LSGA, the subsequent VDC-block grant operating guidelines (2067 BS, 2011) have also given high priority to agriculture service provision.  However, due to lack of institutional mechanisms, and financial and human resources, the decentralisation of agriculture development has not taken place as envisaged by the LSGA.  In order to increase the access to agricultural services by rural communities, SSMP has begun to facilitate the establishment of VDC-level Agriculture Forest and Environment Committees (AFECs) as functional institutions to manage the FtF extension approach.  This is undertaken through mobilising SSMP’s Experienced Leader Farmers (ELFs) who provide agricultural coaching and services to farmer groups in remote areas. The development and mobilisation of ELFs to provide agriculture services to previously unreached farmers is one of the successful and cost effective strategies developed by SSMP, and has resulted in increased empowerment and productivity, and improved livelihoods.

SSMP, through this decentralised agriculture extension, is reaching women and other disadvantaged groups with a package of appropriate agricultural technologies, but faces challenges in a number of areas – strengthening the capacities of AFECs and ELFs; enhancing the awareness and importance of Gender Equity, Social Inclusion and Poverty (GESIP) amongst the programme’s partner stakeholders; acceptance of female leadership in the AFECs; the mobility of women and Dalit extension workers; and the commonly institutionalised gender roles in agricultural and household work.

This paper argues that interventions should not just be about increasing agricultural production, but must also be concerned with integrating on-farm issues from the perspective of socio-economics, equity, and institutional politics.  It highlights the need for field implementers to acquire sensitivity and solid social competencies to ensure that extension services reach the socio-economically disadvantaged groups, not just the elites.  It concludes that embedding a gender and social inclusion approach into agricultural extension programmes requires long-term dedicated focus, appropriate strategies, resources, and a determined effort from all concerned stakeholders.