The permanent secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mrs. Ibukun Odusote, recently disclosed that the federal government intended to spend N60 billion on purchase of mobile phones for 10 million rural farmers across the country.
She added that the fund had already been provided and that the distribution would commence in the first quarter of 2013. Although the minister of agriculture and rural development, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, has issued a statement describing it as "absolutely incorrect", we believe there is no smoke without fire. It's up to the minister to tell Nigerians what is "absolutely correct" but he should be reminded that if such was ever contemplated in the face of damning challenges, it would amount to a misplaced priority.
One cannot imagine the federal government spending such a ludicrous amount at a high interest rate of 28 per cent. What farmers need are basic infrastructure like tractors, fertilizer, storage and processing facilities, good land tenure system, the latest and most practicable technology, best practices and a conducive business environment to bolster their performance and make farming less stressful. Naturally, God has endowed the country with wonderful weather, excellent soil texture and great youthful population that can sustain all-year-round farming. Farmers also need working capital with single-digit interest loans as incentive. Government also needs to provide ancillary services like research and sustainable crop engineering development information to improve yields and sales, not cellphone.
There are 110 million cell phones in Nigeria and most of those willing and capable of using phones already possess them. Has anybody asked the farmers whether they wanted free handsets which most of them already have, or some other enabling arrangement such as subsidized or free air time. Or has government considered what N60 billion can do in the area of storage facilities, farm implements, roads and pest control before deciding to channel such huge amount to give out a mega contract that, at the end of the day, will only benefit those giving the contract?
The minister has said he takes public accountability and probity very seriously and would not even contemplate or approve such expenditure. Fair talk. But more than his personal reason, we suspect a lack of cohesion in his ministry: he says something and the bureaucrats convey another. We are startled that the huge contract instead whiffs corruption and the permanent secretary has not said she was misunderstood. We are more at home with a continuation and institutionalisation of the ongoing electronic wallet system for fertilizer distribution than this specious agenda of cellphone distribution. What research has been done or is it just another copycat project "stolen" from Ghana, Senegal or Rwanda where small farmers make use of cellphones to share information on vital aspects of their trade to enhance extension services and market information.
The double-speak from the ministry shows clearly the limitations of government's approach to policy making in general and how this particular policy decision has not been thought through. The Nigerian state needs to think more seriously about the relative value of policy options and the real interest of beneficiaries before jumping to large contract-giving "solutions".