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The development of extension in Lao PDR

Tienne Vannasou

National Agricultural and Forestry Extension Service (NAFES), Vientiane, Lao PDR.


The Lao Extension Approach (LEA) has been developed and adopted by the National Agricultural and Forestry Extension Service (NAFES). This paper provides an outline of the approach – with the intent to improve the understanding by international extension professionals – of the extension policies, principles and structures in Lao. No analysis of the extension system is attempted as this is a new approach that is still under development The LEA involves a set of policies, principles, structures and processes that should be applied in all Provinces and Districts. The LEA policy framework includes the ‘National Growth and Eradication Strategy’. The key principles of the approach are that it should be: decentralised, pluralistic, participatory, needs-based, integrated, gender-sensitive, group-based and sustainable. The structure of the LEA has two major parts: the village extension system (VES) and the government extension service. The VES is managed by the community and involves setting up of common-interest ‘production groups’ and the appointment of a volunteer ‘village extension worker’ (VEW). The Government Extension Service has three strata: District, Provincial and National. The process of the LEA starts with Training Needs Assessment (TNA). This results in the identification of key problems and the formation of groups. Each group then undertakes a ‘learning project’ in which they discover how to solve their problems. At the end of the learning project, the members of the group share what they have learnt with other farmers.

The experience to date shows that the Lao Extension Approach can help farmers make considerable production increases a wide range of agro-ecological areas.

Three key learnings: (1) The system needs to be more inclusive, so that it brings greater benefits to women, the poor and ethnic minorities, (2) The approach needs to be scaled up reach to all parts of the country while maintaining quality during implementation, (3) The financial viability of the extension system must be assured.


agricultural production, farmer training, poverty alleviation, participatory approaches, decentralisation, community development, sustainability

Background and Constraints to Agricultural Development in Lao PDR

Agricultural and forestry extension is crucial to the future development of the Lao PDR.

Farmers make up approximately 80% of the total population and agricultural production accounts for half of the Gross National Product. Farmers also play an important role in the management of natural resources, including forests that cover 47% of the Lao PDR. These farmers face a large number of problems and many of them are living in poverty. The well-being of the country depends on the ability of farmers to analyse their problems and implement solutions in a systematic manner. The government and development organisations have an important role to play in this process. This is what agricultural and forestry extension involves: supporting the efforts of farmers to solve their problems, overcoming poverty and improving production.

A number of constraints to agricultural development have been identified in The Government’s Strategic Vision for the Agriculture Sector (1999). These constraints differ by agro-geographic zone, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Constraints to agricultural development in the two zones of Lao PDR



1. Insufficient market information and linkages

2. Absence of commodity grades and standards

3. Inadequacy of commercial credit facilities

4. Insufficient flow of
productivity-increasing technologies for cash crops

1. Lack of markets and market information

2. Inadequate access to transport and road links

3. Low incidence of rural savings

4. Absence of the flow of technology that will enhance productivity

5. Slow implementation of formal land tenure arrangements

6. Insufficient community-based irrigation infrastructure

In both lowland and upland zones, agricultural extension can directly address weaknesses that have been identified in the flow of technologies. Other constraints may be addressed by improvements in infrastructure, institutions and the regulatory environment. As these improvements take place, the extension service should support farmers’ efforts to make use of the opportunities that have been created.

The problems that can be directly addressed by agricultural extension include:

  • low educational level of farmers including a lack of basic scientific concepts that are relevant to agriculture;
  • inadequate access to appropriate technology and, in particular, limited knowledge of productive techniques and the skills to implement them;
  • lack of exposure to examples of successful farmers, which might improve confidence and enthusiasm for change;
  • limited organisational development among farmers and a lack of collective action;
  • insufficient market information, including knowledge of prices and standards;
  • lack of knowledge about policies and regulations relating to agriculture.

Not all problems can be solved by agricultural extension. For example, the extension system cannot improve the condition of roads or change market prices. But agricultural extension will help farmers to examine their problems and find the best way to manage their resources in any particular situation.

Description of the Lao Extension Approach

The rationale for a consolidated approach to extension

The Government’s policy on agricultural and forestry extension is spelled out in the ‘Strategic Vision for the Agriculture Sector’, 1999. The following extracts are taken from that document:

“The demand for services will be farmer-driven”

“There will be supportive institutional restructuring to enhance the capacity of MAF to supply direct services to farmers in an integrated multi-disciplinary manner. The approach will be “bottom up”, wherein farmers identify problems through the existing village participatory mechanism”.

“This approach emphasizes: (i) encouraging farming communities to express their problem; (ii) helping the communities to participate in finding solutions to their problems; and (iii) giving communities the opportunity to gain access to the resources to solve their problems”.

The Government’s commitment to reforming the extension system was reiterated in the National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy (NGPES, 2004). The NGPES priorities for the Agriculture and Forestry Sectors include:

“Fully decentralised “bottom-up” participatory planning”

“Strengthen the overall capacity of the Provincial and District Agricultural and Forestry Offices (PAFOs and DAFOs), especially the latter”

“Develop an integrated extension system to transfer agricultural production technologies to the poor people and upgrade the capacity of NAFES, particularly for upland areas”

“Ensure that research (NAFRI) and extension services (NAFES) are demand driven”

The NGPES also contains a gender strategy that includes:

“Affirmative action concerning staffing of provincial and district staff, including extension workers” and “Gender focal points in villages to promote improved agricultural practices”

Finally, the NGPES strategy for environmental conservation includes the following:

“Strengthen participation, especially by the poor, in the preparation and implementation of national and local plans, policies and strategies”, and “Co-manage environmental services and resources with the poor through strengthening community management of environmental resources”.

The Challenge for Future Extension

The future system for agricultural and forestry extension in Lao PDR should be based on the policies of the Government and take account of the lessons that have been learnt from past experience. The problems that were created by the previous centralised and sectoral approach should not be repeated. The roles and responsibilities of MAF, which are continuous and nationwide in scope, should be combined with the positive features of successful projects that have been supported by a number of different donors. The challenge is to establish an extension system that is decentralised, participatory, pluralistic and sustainable. The system should serve the interests of all farmers: men and women, from all ethnic groups, in all areas of the country.

The Government is committed to meeting this challenge, while also being cognizant of the difficulties that are involved. The difficulties that need to be overcome include:

  • Lack of detailed guidelines on the operations of the extension system.
  • Limited knowledge and experience of extension staff in providing the type of service that is required.
  • Insufficient financial and material resources available to the extension organisation when compared to the scale of the roles and responsibilities it must perform.
  • Weak coordination among organisations and projects involved in the planning and implementation of extension activities.

The Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry is currently undertaking a number of steps to overcome these problems, with support from a number of international donors, e.g. UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), Swiss, Swedish and Japanese Governments.

Principles of the Lao PDR Extension Strategy

The Lao Extension Approach is built on a set of ideas about how farmers learn to solve their problems and what is the most effective way of supporting them in this process. These principles are as follows:

Decentralisation encompasses a number of related ideas. Primarily, the decentralisation of extension means a farmer-driven service, with local ownership of the learning and problem-solving process. Secondarily, decentralisation means that the technical content of extension activities is based on local constraints and opportunities. Thirdly, decentralisation means that Government assistance to farmers is planned from the bottom-up, with District staff responding to needs that have been identified at the village level, Provincial staff supporting the efforts of the Districts and a small team at Central level coordinating and supervising.

Pluralism is an inevitable consequence of decentralisation. Pluralism means that different types of extension activities will take place in different places, and these activities will change from year to year. There will be different participants, different methods and different content. This is the opposite of standardisation. The term pluralism also recognises that the extension system encompasses the efforts of more than one organisation. Although MAF plays a leading role in agriculture and forestry extension, other government organisations, foreign projects and the private sector can make an important contribution.

Participation is an essential ingredient of local ownership. The concept is often misunderstood because there are different types of participation. Farmers can be passive participants in extension, for example by listening to a lecture, and they can be active participants, for example by getting involved in a practical demonstration. In both of these cases it is possible that the extension activity has been planned and organised by somebody else. The new farmer–driven extension system in Lao PDR is based on the idea of interactive participation, which involves farmers and village authorities taking a prominent role in analysing their problems and deciding how to address them.

Needs-based extension occurs as a consequence of interactive participation. If farmers are involved in planning, the outcome will be extension activities that are based on local needs. Real problems are likely to be the focus of farmers’ analysis, and they will be seeking practical solutions. Consequently, many extension activities will follow an ‘experiential’ approach, meaning that they start with an examination of actual experience. This in contrast to extension that is target-based, and which follows a didactic approach, meaning that it starts with the transfer of generalised information.

Integration is important because farmers’ needs encompass many different sectors. As part of a pluralistic needs-based system, extension activities address a wide range of issues. In any single village, there could be farmers who are interested in rice intensification, vegetable marketing, irrigation management, erosion control, livestock diseases, and bamboo production. Consequently, extension workers at the District level are being retrained so that they can respond to farmers needs in an multidisciplinary manner.

Gender-sensitivity is seen as an essential feature of an equitable and effective extension system. Men and women play different roles in agricultural production, and they face different constraints and opportunities in getting access to resources and services. These differences need to be taken into account in the planning and implementation of extension activities. Sometimes it will be useful to organise separate activities for women. Even when this is not considered necessary, extension workers should make special efforts to ensure that all sections of the community are benefiting from extension activities.

Group-based extension is another feature of an equitable and effective system. It would be unfair to support a few individual farmers, and it is impossible to support all members of each community at the same time. The key attribute of extension groups is that members have a shared interest in learning about certain topics and/or solving particular problems. In most cases, special groups will be formed for this purpose. It is possible, however, for activities to be carried out with the members of a pre-existing group. Over time, all interested farmers should have the opportunity to become members of a group.

Self-motivation models reinforce the farmer-driven approach. Farmers should join extension groups because they want to learn, not because they are paid in cash or kind. Financial or material incentives will not be provided as part of the official extension system because this undermines ownership. By joining a group, farmers will benefit in terms of improved knowledge and skills, and a consequent ability to solve problems and improve production.

Sustainability is another important consideration in the design of the extension system for the Lao PDR. In some other countries, the operations of national extension became dependent on funding from foreign projects. When those projects came to an end, the government could not afford to continue paying for staff or activities. By adopting the principles described above, the Government of Laos hopes to avoid this problem. Foreign projects can support the creation and expansion of the extension system, but the system will be sustainable because it is decentralized, pluralistic, participatory and self-motivated.

Structure of the Extension System in Lao PDR

The extension system that is being developed in Laos consists of two parts: the Government Extension Service and the Village Extension System. The sub-components are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Structure of the Lao Extension system:

The Government Extension Service shown in Figure 1 currently consists of three strata1:

The National Agriculture and Forestry Extension Service (NAFES), which has the status of a Department within MAF. Since August 2001, NAFES has been the lead extension institution in the Lao PDR.

The Provincial Agriculture and Forestry Extension Centre (PAFEC), which is located in the Provincial Agricultural and Forestry Office (PAFO). The PAFEC makes use of Subject Matter Specialists (SMS) from the technical sections of PAFO.

The District Agriculture and Forestry Extension Office (DAFEO). The DAFEO is staffed by generalists who will be given the title ‘Farming System Extension Workers’ (FSEWs).

The Village Extension System has three major components:

Village Authorities, both formal and informal, that take a leading role in planning and organising local development activities;

Village Extension Workers (VEWs), mandated by the Village Authorities to facilitate extension activities in collaboration with staff of DAFEO;

Production Groups, made up of farmers with a common interest, who undertake learning projects with the objective of solving a particular problem and/or learning about particular techniques.

Functions of Extension Workers

The collaboration between DAFEO staff (FSEW) and the Village Extension Worker (VEW) is the main bridge between the Government Extension Service and the Village Extension System. There are important differences in the functions of these workers, as summarised in the Table 2.

Table 2. Functions of differences extension personnel in Lao





Government employee

Community worker

Appointed by

District Agricultural and Forestry Extension Office

Village Authorities; selected by the villagers

main activity

facilitating participatory planning, supporting the work of VEWS

facilitating learning projects by production groups, and extension to other farmers


one FSEW for 5 to 10 villages (less in pilot areas)

one or more VEW per village



some specialised interest and experience


Staff from PAFEC, DAFEO staff, Village Authorities and VEWs

FSEW, Village Authorities, production groups and farmers


Fixed salary

Negotiated with community, in cash, kind or labour

In the future, the implementation of extension activities in the village will be the responsibility of farmers themselves, facilitated by the VEW and coordinated by the Village Authorities. The role of the FSEW will be to support the Village Extension System, not manage it. Currently, while the capability to implement the Village Extension System is being developed, the FSEW must take a role in initiating and guiding learning projects as a means of training VEWs.

Overview or Operation of the Village Extension System

A cornerstone of decentralisation is that Village Authorities have a leading role in planning and organising local development activities. This role includes the supervision of the Village Extension System. A number of local leaders share this role, including the village head and deputies, and representatives of organisations for women, the elderly and youth.

A key responsibility of Village Authorities is the supervision of Village Extension Workers (VEWs) who facilitate the implementation of extension activities. VEWS are members of the community who are willing to share their time and expertise. They are compensated by the members of the community who benefit from extension activities. Once the Village Extension System is operational, there will be one or more VEW per village, depending on the needs that have been identified by the Villagers. For example, there could be different VEWs responsible for livestock, rice and vegetable extension. The selection of VEWs is done by the community. In most cases, the farmers who are selected already have some recognised expertise. They might have many years of practical experience, or they could be younger people who have already attended training in relevant subjects.

VEWs have two major responsibilities: organizing Learning Projects that are carried out with Production Groups, and extending the outcome of Learning Projects to other farmers in the village. VEWs might also be involved in providing specific services such as vaccinating livestock.

Each Learning Project is a set of activities carried out over a defined period with the objective of addressing a particular need. Learning Projects are planned by farmers and endorsed by the Village Authorities. There may be more than one project taking place at a time.

Production Groups are formed for the purpose of implementing Learning Projects. To ensure that they are manageable and effective, the size of the groups is limited to about 10 farmers. The members of the group appoint a leader (know as the ‘Head of Production Group’) who will liaise with the VEW. The formation of these groups is initially a short-term measure. Once the Learning Project is completed, it is up to the members of each group to decide if they wish to continue meeting or working together.

As part of the VES, the knowledge generated during Learning Projects is shared with other members of the community. In other words, information and innovations spread beyond the Production Groups. During the implementation of Learning Projects, activities are organised at which other interested households can discuss what is being learnt by group members. After the project has been completed, the VEW conducts additional activities, such as advisory visits to interested households.

The extension process at village level

The Village Extension System involves a cycle of activities, with one event leading to the next as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 The village extension cycle

Training Needs Assessment (TNA) is the starting point for this cycle of activities. TNA is carried out by farmers at least once each year, led by the Village Authorities and supported by staff from DAFEO. During the TNA, farmers identify the problems they have been facing, examine the constraints that are causing the problems, and determine the knowledge and skills that are needed to overcome the problems. This analysis leads to agreement about one or more Learning Projects that will be carried out in the village. Specifically, farmers agree on what they hope to achieve through these projects, and which households will participate in each project. The participants of a Learning Project are called a ‘Production Group’.

The implementation of Learning Projects is facilitated by Village Extension Workers with support from DAFEO staff. The content and duration of these projects varies from case to case, but they usually involve regular sessions throughout an entire ‘production cycle’. In the case of crops, this means from land preparation and planting through to harvesting and processing. During the project, a number of different types of activity can be carried out, including training sessions, practical demonstrations and experiments. Members of the Production Group are expected to apply what they learn on their own farms.

Participatory monitoring occurs during the implementation of all Learning Projects. Participatory evaluation occurs at the end of the Projects. The aim of these activities is to assess progress towards the objectives that were agreed during the TNA. The focus of the monitoring and evaluation is what the members of the Production Group are doing on their farms. Are they applying new skills? Have they overcome their problems and improved production? What are the reasons for success or failure?

Monitoring and Evaluation activities help Production Groups and extension workers to make decisions about the implementation of Learning Projects. Adjustments might be made or they might continue as originally planned.

Monitoring and Evaluation also helps extension workers to make decisions about additional activities that extend the outcome of Learning Project to other sections of the community. When it becomes clear that the members of a Production Group are able to solve particular problems, the VEW can organise exchanges between the group and other farmers.

Once a Learning Project is completed, the results are taken into account during the next Training Needs Assessment. The same Project might be repeated with a different group of farmers, or the original Production Group might plan a new project to study issues that emerged during implementation.


Results of pilot activities

The experience to date shows that the Lao Extension Approach can help farmers make considerable production increases. During 2002-2004, the approach was tested in 96 villages covering different agro-ecological conditions in the provinces of Champassak (lowland), Salavane (plateau) and Luang Prabang (upland). More than 1,600 farmers, including men and women, were involved in forming groups on a range of subjects: rice, pigs, chickens, mushrooms, and fruit trees. Each group analysed their production problems, conducted learning sessions with support from District and Provincial extension staff, and practiced new techniques in their own fields. The approach had a very positive impact on the crop and livestock production: rice yields of group members increased by an average of 43%, while the number of pigs and chickens kept by member increased by 143% and 262% respectively.

These resulted helped to convince the Ministry that this approach should be implemented across the country. In 2005, the Lao Extension Approach was introduced to five new provinces. A further four provinces started the training process in February 2006, and the remaining five provinces will be brought under the system in 2007.

Making extension more inclusive

The Lao Extension Approach is designed to be participatory, gender-sensitive and pro-poor, but these principles were not always implemented during the pilot activities. This was due – in part - to an earlier focus on ‘model farmers’ who were usually selected because they were better educated and better resourced. Special steps are now being taken to make the extension approach more inclusive. Training of extension staff is being modified with the aim of improving awareness of social systems. Extension methods that are suitable for illiterate farmers are being given greater consideration. Efforts are also being made to identify technologies that may be more appropriate to the interests and resources of women and smaller farmers. Finally, the monitoring and evaluation system is being revised so that field workers and managers alike can determine who is benefiting and how much they are benefiting in both absolute and relative terms

Maintaining quality while scaling up

During the pilot phase, the Lao Extension Approach was introduced into three provinces over a period of three years. During the scaling up phase, the approach is being introduced into 13 provinces in another three years. Although valuable managerial experience was gained during the pilot phase, it is impossible to maintain the same intensity of coaching during scaling up and there is an understandable temptation to ‘cut corners’. This challenge is being addressed in a number of ways. Firstly, NAFES is expanding the system in a decentralised manner, with Provincial and District staff make their own plans based on local circumstances. This will encourage ownership, relevance and accountability to the community. Secondly, NAFES is increasing the volume of supporting materials that are available to field staff, including training manuals, technical guides, and methodological tools. Thirdly, NAFES is documenting and disseminating ‘success stories’, and supporting peer exchanges, with the aim of maintaining standards.

Making extension financially sustainable

The implementation of the Lao Extension Approach currently depends on funding from aid projects. This situation is expected to continue for the next few years. Nevertheless, the Government is already thinking ahead to the time when external funding will no longer be available. There is no simple answer to this problem. For the foreseeable future, central Government revenues will be insufficient to pay for the transportation and allowances that field staff need in order to provide farmers with advice and training. At the same time, Lao farmers – especially those who most need training and advice - will not be in a position to buy these services. In the long-term, economic growth will lead to improvements in both Government revenues and the purchasing power of farmers. In the short-term, the extension system is being developed in a way that minimises operating costs and creates opportunities for funding from local government units. The focus of NAFES is on providing an extension service, not building an extension empire.


Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (1999). ‘Strategic Vision for the Agricultural Sector’

Government of Lao PDR (2003). ‘National Growth and Poverty Eradication Strategy’.

National Agricultural and Forestry Extension Service (2005). ‘Consolidating Extension in Lao PDR’.

1 This section makes use of new nomenclature adopted by NAFES in June 2005.

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