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Free Mobile Phones for Nigerian Farmers?

At the end of 2012, the Nigerian Ministry of Agriculture made public its plans to provide free mobile phones to rural farmers. According to this report:

Ibukun Idusote, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, was reported as saying that the Federal Ministry of Agriculture would procure ten million mobile phones, worth about N60 billion, from China and the US for free distribution to rural farmers across the country.

This triggered reverberations in the Nigerian blogosphere. Kikiowo Ileowo asks where the government got the statistics – that warrants 10 million mobile phones for 10 million farmers – from:

The question… is where exactly are the 10million farmers? Are they from the army of the unemployed 16, 074, 295 or from the already employed 51, 181, 884. If their answer is the former, what exactly are they producing that Nigeria has not become a hub of everything food?

Now, understand that a large portion of food production in Nigeria is done through mechanized farming which makes use of less manual labour. The ‘farmers’ Mr. President wants to provide handset for are subsistent farmers who produce what they mostly consume in their homes. I have a garden at the back of my house; does that qualify me as a recipient of the ‘Jona-phone'? I see no reason why the president in conjunction with his minister of Agriculture would insult the collective intelligence of Nigerians by playing to the gallery with a noble idea that has revolutionised countries like Uganda, Kenya and India.

There has since been a correction on the real cost of the phones:

…the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, has corrected the report that the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, Mrs. Ibukun Odusote, said the phones would be bought by the government at the cost of N60 billion, his explanation that the phones will be supplied to farmers through Public/Private Sector partnership…

Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigeria's Minister of Agriculture

Dr Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture rose up in defence of the project. In a press release he says:

When I came on board as minister of agriculture in July of 2011, I found a corrupt and totally inefficient fertilizer sector. The government was spending huge amounts of money on direct procurement and distribution of subsidized fertilizer, but less than 11% of farmers got the fertilizers. Some of the fertilizers paid for by government were never delivered to the warehouses. Some of the fertilizer delivered contained more sand than fertilizer while a large portion of the fertilizer subsidized by government found its way across our borders to neighbouring countries where it was sold at prevailing market prices.

This technology-mediated solution, he asserts, ended the corruption associated with fertilizer distribution:

We ended four decades of corruption in the fertilizer sector within 90 days of my assumption of office as minister. How did we do this? We were able get subsidized high quality fertilizer and seeds to our rural farmers by introducing the GES (Growth Enhancement Support) scheme in April of 2012. The GES scheme delivers inputs (fertilizers and seeds) to farmers directly by using farmers’ cell phones. We created an electronic platform (e-wallet) on which we registered farmers and agro dealers who own shops that sell farm inputs all over the country. To date we have registered 4.2 million farmers and about 900 agro dealers.

The Minister thinks that although many Nigerian farmers are illiterate but are able to use mobile telephones:

Some people think that our farmers are uneducated and cannot use cell phones. The evidence does not support that. Under the GES scheme, we made it possible for farmers to transact business in their own local languages using their cell phones. From data we collected based on farmers’ use of cell phones to access fertilizers and seeds last year, we found that the total number of transactions done by phone with respect to the GES scheme was 4.9 million. Of these, 1.2 million were in English, 620,000 were in Pidgin, 2.2 million were in Hausa, and 854,000 were in Yoruba and 344 were in Igbo. From this data, we have no doubt that our farmers are well able to use cell phones.

Technology, according to the Dr Adesina, aided his judgement that there would be no food crisis after floods swept through some parts of the country:

When the floods occurred, there was panic in the land… I was not moved. We used modern technology to guide our decision. Using remote sensing and satellite imagery, we mapped out the extent of the flood and determined that no more than 1.17% of our total cultivated area was affected by the floods. Our detractors wanted the world to believe the opposite, that food crisis was imminent. They were wrong. Today, five months after the floods, we do not have a food crisis.

Nonetheless, some netizens still have unanswered questions. Olusola Adegbeti asks:

One must then poignantly ask, though it be a rhetorical question, if the purchase and distribution of GSM phones to hundreds of farmers spread across the length and breadth of a country so large as Nigeria is the most critical and challenging of issues bedevilling the Nigerian agricultural sector at the moment? Your guess is as good as mine. Running on the heels of the above, it is convenient to say that one does not need the wisdom of Solomon or the prophetic insight of Isaiah to be led in the direction of the myriad of issues that have since rendered the agricultural sector beggarly, issues such as lack of easy access to land for farming, absence of reliable and corruption-free financial institutions to empower farmers acquire the required modern machinery for mechanised and commercial farming that is usually the backbone of every nation, lack of easy access to requisite technology and agro-chemical support-structure for sustained annual and perennial farming as well as animal husbandry….

The Sun asks if farmers really need new mobile phones, when they already have one or have other sources of information?

The telephone is also clearly not the best way to reach farmers who mostly live in the rural areas. Rural information centres, traditional communication models and the radio are much better channels. There are also many more direct initiatives through which the government can boost agricultural production in the country, than provision of telephones. More importantly, the government does not need to buy telephones for farmers because those among them who could use such phones, already have them.

With handsets selling for as low as between N2000 and N3000 in the country, any farmer that is worth the name can afford to own one, and most likely has one already. If they do not, what the government needs to do is to empower them to be able to afford such a basic tool.

Disu Kimor thinks that it’s another white elephant project:

Such white elephant projects will only reinforce the perception of Nigeria as a laughing stock of the rest of the world where we like to teach the blind sign language. Any developing country such as Nigeria, wishing to develop its agricultural sector will focus direct government intervention to help farmers and boost food production on achieving steady supply of working capital, improve research and development, water supply, ensure low cost of fuel and labour, (corruption-free) subsidy on farming equipment and basic infrastructure.

Disu concludes:

One day, posterity will judge the quangos and political leaders of this country whose main pre-occupation is keeping the country on its knees or embezzle and waste much needed public funds.

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