How to Build a Scalable Pilot Program for Digitally Enabled Extension Services

Carefully structuring your pilot program with an early vision towards sustainability and scale can maximize the impact of digitally enabled extension services in agricultural programs.

Description: Digitally-enabled extension services (the provision of information to farmers to help them improve agricultural practices) can be implemented in a number of ways. These services often include two-way information sharing between recipients and providers as well as cross-channel and cross-sectoral options focused on the use of mobile phones, via text- and voice-based messages (such as through interactive voice response).. Other options can include radio and low-cost video approaches, which do not require access to a phone or a digital signal.

Strong evidence exists on the efficacy of these tools in improving agricultural extension and information delivery, while widening the reach of information to those living in remote areas and to marginalized groups such as women, youth and vulnerable populations.

Yet all too often these services are implemented without sufficient attention paid to conducting research regarding the target population, testing on a small scale, figuring out a financially and organizationally sustainable delivery model, and honing and adapting an implementation before implementing it on a wide scale. One way to maximize the impact, scalability, and sustainability of digitally-enabled extension services is to begin with a small-scale pilot program.

This guide outlines steps to help you develop a scalable pilot for a digitally enabled extension service. These recommendations are summarized from existing materials, which can be found in the Resources section.


  1. Select an area for your pilot to be conducted. The first step is to select a manageable area within the broader community your project is serving. Keep in mind that if your ultimate goal is to scale up to a broader target area, it is important to understand not only the unique characteristics of your pilot area, but also the broader characteristics of the communities you ultimately wish to serve. When possible, the pilot area should serve as a representative sample of the full target area. Keep in mind that any pilot may not necessarily surface challenges in the larger target area, so your intervention may need to be adapted and iterated upon after the pilot is complete
  2. Develop an understanding of the local community in your pilot area – as well as the broader community you are hoping to reach. Begin with an assessment of the local digital and mobile ecosystem. You can start your analysis at a national or regional level, but will then want to hone in on the specific charactericistis of your pilot community.

Key questions to consider include:

  • Does the community have access to mobile phones?
    • If so, is there equal access across the whole community, or limited for certain populations (e.g. due to gender, age, or literacy)?
    • If so, what types of phones are most commonly owned (e.g. basic phones, feature phones, or smart phone)?
    • If so, is the community accustomed to using text messaging and/or voice messaging?
  • Does the community listen to the radio or watch television?
    • If so, what channels do they listen to or watch?
    • What languages do these channels present in?
    • Do community members listen to radio at home or in a group?
  • What levels of literacy (and digital literacy) are common in the community?
  • Are there individuals (such as lead farmers or digitally-savvy youth) or community groups (such as women’s groups or VSLAs) that can be leveraged when designing your pilot?
  • How is the community accustomed to receiving agricultural information?

TIP: Radio and low cost videos are excellent extension approaches that do not require mobile phone access or connectivity.

TIP: See the toolkit on How to Conduct a Stakeholder Workshop and How to Conduct Qualitative Research from the Health Compass for a relevant toolkit focused on social and behavior change communication (SBCC). While a formal stakeholder workshop may not be necessary when scoping out your pilot, it is one example of how to gather information directly from the end users.

  1. Be deliberate in your choice of tool or service. Each tool offers unique functionalities. A summary is provided below:
Tool/Approach Opportunities Challenges
Text-messages Relatively low cost (e.g. typically lower cost than video) and potential for wide reach; good complement to traditional agricultural extension activities; opportunity for interactivity if farmers can call or text in questions Farmers must have access to phones and basic literacy and digital literacy; messages must be crafted carefully and deliberately (e.g.  tied to agricultural activities of specific seasons, delivered at the appropriate time), and translated into local languages
Voice messages, such as interactive voice response Good option for communities with high illiteracy but high connectivity and phone access (where text messages may have not been as successful); opportunity for interactivity if farmers can call or text in questions Typically more costly than text messages; need to be translated into local languages; farmers must be accustomed recieve voice messages or trained in how to receive them
Radio Good option for a community with limited connectivity, phone access, and/or literacy, particularly when community members are already accustomed to listening to the radio; opportunity for interactivity if farmers can call or text in questions; better opportunity to share information via narrative or stories Typically require partnerships with local radio stations; more difficult to personalize messaging for individuals farmers or communities; requires access to radio; typically one-way communication unless combined with interactivity
TV & video Good option for a community with limited connectivity, phone access, and/or literacy, particularly when community members are already accustomed to watching TV or videos; opportunity for interactivity if farmers can call or text in questions; better opportunity to share information via narrative or stories Typically one-way communication unless combined with interactivity (though there are many examples of highly impactful interactive low-cost video)
Computer & internet Good option for digitally-savvy communities with high levels of internet access Requires high levels of technology access and technology saviness

TIP: This matrix from e-agriculture provides a more in-depth overview into the functionalities of each type of digitally-enabled extension tool.

Cross-channel approaches can be impactful (for example, combining radio agricultural programs with SMS or voice-messages underscoring concepts shared via radio, or combining low-cost videos with the ability to text or call in with questions or comments), but note that combining tools and approaches adds a new level of complexity. If implementing a cross-channel approach, ensure that the content delivered on one channel is consistent and well-timed with the content provided on another, and that the full approach is piloted all together, rather than each channel or approach being piloted individually. Another option when designing a pilot is to consider beginning with one tool or approach, with the understanding that additional layers can be added in later to complement or support an already successful approach.

TIP: For more on cross-channel digitally-enabled extension services, see this blog post on Agrilinks about USAID’s New Alliance ICT Extension Challenge Fund.

  1. Select partners for content creation and technology implementation. Developing a strong, scaleable digitally-enabled extension pilot requires cross-sectoral collaboration. It may be that your digitally-enabled service provider already has an approach to finding and preparing content and having it approved by a ministry as may be required. If this is not the case, you will need to look for reputable partners to support with content generation. Content providers could be local or international research institutes, extension departments, or universities. These providers may already have content from books, papers, or reports that would simply need to be digitized in order to be disseminated through a technology-enabled platform. Next, look for the appropriate technology partners who can help set up the appropriate systems needed to disseminate the content[1]. Look for a partner with expertise in using the particular tool or service you have selected for your pilot, and when possible, think about selecting partners that are local and already have a deep understanding of the local digital and/or agricultural ecosystem.

TIP: The Health Compass has a how-to guide on How to Design SBCC Messages. While focused on health activities, the recommendations are sector agnostic and relevant for any initiative focused on information sharing and dissemination.

  1. Consider business models, select one to try, and develop a plan for long-term sustainability. The pilot stage is the best time to think about long-term sustainability, including both financial and organizational sustainability. If you will be offering the service for free, consider what limits you want to implement from the beginning (e.g. offering the service for a period of time or a limited number of messages) and be clear from the beginning how farmers can continue receiving the service moving forward. If someone else will be providing the service after your project pilots it (for example, if farmers are able to purchase the service directly from a technology provider or phone company), ensure that whomever this is will be involved up front in the pilot. If farmers will be expected to pay for the service in the future, ensure that this is communicated clearly from the beginning of the pilot, and a process is put in place to transition farmers from receiving the free service to a pay model. You should also consider any contractual constraints that might impact the service’s business model and long-term sustainability. For example, are you able to build in a structured “review period” into a contract with a technology provider, to ensure that there is adequate time to assess impact, iterate, and adapt the model if needed?
  2. Assess, adapt, repeat. Many digitally-enabled extension tools have built in mechanisms available for assessment and evaluation. Voice and SMS platforms typically allow for SMS- or voice-based surveys to be conducted, which can be used on a periodic basis to assess beneficiary satisfaction with the service and solicit user feedback. If your project is conducting a semi-annual or annual survey, consider including specific questions in your survey instrument related to the digitally-enabled extension service, as a way to assess the impact of this approach as a component of your overall activities. Consider combining quantitative data from surveys with qualitative data – make the time to visit the field and have conversations with farmers who have participated in the pilot, to understand what has worked well, what can be improved, and ultimately, whether the information provided is having its desired effect.


These outcomes are illustrative and have been collected from digital development organizations that have followed the steps outlined in this guide:

  • Improved understanding of how digitally-enabled extension services can be used to support the information-dissemination components of your agricultural work
  • Improved ability to select the appropriate tools, services, and partnerships to build out a successful digitally-enabled extension pilot
  • Increased capacity to share and disseminate agricultural information

Common Missteps

  • Not taking into account the unique nuances of the community you are trying to serve. Understand that a tool may work great in one region or community, but not another. If a pilot is successful in one region or community, there may be reasons why it is not as successful in another. This means that the type of service, or plan for implementation, may need to be adapted to meet the unique needs of particular groups of farmers. And at the outset of any pilot, the wider target area should be analyzed before the pilot is designed.
  • Not utilizing the data you are gathering through your pilot for learning and adaptation. A key benefit of digitally-enabled extension services is the ability to gather large amounts of data about the usage patterns and preferences of beneficiaries. However, make sure that you are maximizing the impact of this data by actively reviewing it and making adaptations to your implementation.
  • Re-inventing the wheel.There are already many digitally-enabled information service providers working agriculture and other sectors. Any organization wanting to implement such services should carefully consider tapping one of these services.  If an organization finds it still wants to start a new service, it should build it on the several software platforms available for such services