In the years 1845 to 1851, Ireland faced one of the most serious crises in its history. A mysterious fungal disease impaired all the potato crops in the country, destroying them completely.
Back at the time, potatoes were a major component of the Irish food sector, as they made up over 80 per cent of people's diet.
The mysterious plague that hit crops across the state, resulting in mass starvation that claimed the lives of about a million people, and drove over a million more towards emigration.
When London government officials heard about the plague, they formed a unique professional team with the goal of bringing other kinds of crops to Ireland, and diminish the hunger that arose.
The team gained knowledge from top experts and professors all over Britain and later on traveled through Ireland to spread the word among local farmers. Moving from district to district, they quickly distributed new technologies and effective practices, teaching farmers how to grow more crops besides potatoes in the most productive manner possible at the time.
This team comprised the first modern agricultural extension workers. By the end of the century, many European countries had also adopted the method, and other teams of agriculture extension workers were operating in Denmark, Italy, France, and the Netherlands.
Agricultural extension workers continue to operate around the world, disseminating scientific and research-based knowledge among farmers, helping them streamline crop processes. In today's reality, as the amount of knowledge grows exponentially and advanced technologies are developed every day, the role of the extension workers becomes even more important and significant.
The road to efficiency is full of obstacles
Although Africa is in dire need of agricultural optimization, extension workers are scarce across the continent. While the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization recommends a ratio of one extension worker for every 400 farmers, in Africa the ratio is one worker per 3,000 farmers - 15 times less than western countries, 7.5 times the organization's recommendations.
The lack of agriculture extension workers in Africa directly affects the level of sector efficiency across the continent. Available, vital knowledge does not reach farmers in the field, while they continue to cultivate their lands using outdated and ineffective methods. Thus, Africa continues to present the lowest agricultural efficiency figures in the world, resulting in food shortage and unnecessarily high prices.
If African governments want to develop the sector and support local farmers, agriculture extension workers are a must. Only by distributing professional knowledge, innovative practices, and advanced technologies can we make agriculture efficient and productive, and address the continent's growing need for food. With government support in the form of training and subsidy, this dream can become a reality much faster.
With the help of the extension workers, Ireland's farmers managed to terminate the crisis and put an end to famine. Potatoes continue to be a global case of innovation, as the first vegetable to be grown in space. This case, however, did not happen with the help of extension workers.
The writer is an entrepreneur and investor, leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa.