It was an early morning appointment. Very early. I hate to accept such appointments because they rob me of my rest, as I often close and sleep very late. But when it was said it is a breakfast meeting with Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, I became determined to attend. If nothing else, to understand why this issue of telephone-for-farmers came to his mind.
And for over ninety minutes, he was on his feet, explaining and gesturing on what his ministry has been doing.
Expectedly, the issue of buying telephone handsets for farmers took over a third of the time he addressed us. He sounded sound. He sounded confident on his presentation. But I must confess that I came out of the hall a little more confused than I was before I entered. The breakfast was not even served.
Part of the confusion was because Dr Adesina, literally bathed us with raw figures; many of which we could not absorb. Yet, he was so convinced about the propriety of buying phones for Nigerian farmers. He claimed he (the ministry) had been gathering the data of farmers in the last two years, using the Growth Enhancement Support scheme. And that it is with that data base that he has been able to crush the fertiliser cartel, by essentially eliminating middlemen. That he now communicates with the farmers nationwide directly. "The farmers now know where to go get their fertilizers", he enthused with a triumphant glee.
But question after question had to do with the telephone initiative. He laboured to provide as many answers as possible. But the rain of the questions should tell him it is a rather foggy concept, even though he celebrates how successful the same initiative had been in Kenya. "if it worked there, then it must work here", he swore, stressing that "as an agric minister, I am not going to promote underdevelopment, but growth and development". He explains that there is an IT network, he called Cellular, which has a template and data of all registered farmers, and with the device, information are easily "uploaded" to the farmers and vice versa.
I wonder what kind of farmers Adesina is talking about. When did farmers become this IT-savvy? In what language are these information sent to the farmers? He mentioned Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and pidgin. He did not say anything about Urhobo, Efik, Ikwerre, Anang, Ijaw, Tiv, Idoma, etc. Are there no local farmers from these tribes? He made the point about the error of equating illiteracy with inability to read or write English Language. Yes, so, is there a language module in that Cellular device to communicate with farmers who can read and write Urhobo for instance?
Perhaps more worrisome is Adesina's farmers' data base. He reeled out figures of farmers state-by-state, noting the number that has phone already and the number that does not yet have. The ones that don't have yet are 10 million. I connect well with my folks in Orogun, Delta State. Not once have I heard anybody enumerated them for farmers' census. Till date they do not receive the "deregulated fertilizer", nor are their names in the Book of Farmers.
After our meeting last Tuesday, I have called home, and the talk about farmers' data base is all strange to my people. Mr Agric minister, is this another form of marginalization? The minister says more farmers will be registered into the data base. When this is done, will they also be handed their subsidized handsets?
Nothing was said about how these rural farmers will be recharging their phones. Or will the phones come with small generators or solar panels? Many people in the city do not see enough electricity to even charge their phones, let alone rural dwellers whose homes are not even connected to any electricity grid. And pray, how can farmers who could not afford the cheapest phones be able to faithfully load credits into these phones so as to stay connected to the Agric ministry?
Despite his circumlocution on how to physically get the phone to the farmers, the Honourable minister could not quite convince us how the farmers will pick up the phones. But that is a lesser worry. How much will the project cost the Federal Government? The media had reported that the cost is N60 billion. But Dr Adesina declared that "there is no N60 billion anywhere!", implying that the figure is hoax. He explained that the private sector which brought ion $8 billion last year into the sector, will partner the federal government on the project. He said further that the cost of the phones will be funded from Universal Service Provision Fund-which is two per cent of the profit by farmers. So how much is government putting down for the project, since the private sector is supposed to provide a part of the funds too? But the Hon Minister fired back: "I cannot tell you that now.... We are still working out the figures".
He was not even fazed when someone implied that the phone project may not be unconnected with how to source and warehouse some huge funds for the 2015 presidential campaign. Rather, he insisted that he's got a task to improve the economy of farmers in Nigeria. And that it was through such calculated commitment that the nation was saved the anguish of famine after the nationwide flood of last year. The nation now produces 8.1 metric tonnes of food annually. The nation's silos, he said, have grown from 35 per cent completion to 1.3 metric tonnes storage capacity since he came in.
But above all, Dr Adesina had an exultant feeling in ending the fertilizer scam that had caused farmers and even government much pain and cost in the past. Besides, he dealt with the scam within the seed companies in the country, within 60 days. And even happier is he, over the termination of tractor racket in the country as "the era of supplying refurbished tractors to farmers, which will work only a few days, is gone for good".
The minister, warmly loved and appreciated for his commitment to changing the story line of the agric ministry in the country, must have realized from the metric tonnes of controversy trailing this his phone-for-farmers idea, that it is one matter that has the capacity to dull his shine in the eyes of the larger public. It may take the sail off his works and efforts. And that is why when he talked about a coming programme called NAGROPRENEURS for Nigerian youths to be encouraged into farming, by way of granting them access to land, tractors markets etc., not much attention was given to it. Not even the fact that Nigeria now exports 1.1 metric tonnes of dry cassava chips to China was as exciting as the issue of telephone for farmers.
Dr Adesina has been roundly abused by many callers to several radio programmes in Lagos. Hon Minister sir, this programme is anything but popular. Many think it is even stupid, just as some say it is gross misplacement of priority. The only thing that can drive this project forward is your faith in it. And all I can say is Bon Voyage, hoping Nigerians will not be given cause to say.. "but we told you".