13 January 2013

Nigeria: Totally Off the Farm Track

The revelation by the Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture that the government will spend N60 billion this year to procure and distribute cell phones to rural farmers is one of the most wasteful, senseless, misplaced and outrageous policy initiatives ever conceived by a Nigerian government.

Speaking at Igan Apabi, Ijebu East Local Government Area of Ogun State during a sensitisation and orientation programme for farmers last Tuesday, the permanent secretary Mrs. Ibukun Odusote said funds for the project had already been provided by the government. She said the plan was part of the e-Wallet project under which the ministry's officials would be able to educate, inform and communicate with the farmers in the rural areas across the country on the latest and best agricultural practices as well as the current prices of commodities in the market. She also said, "We are talking about 10 million phones. Each phone will be about N4,000 or N6,000 because they are in large quantities; we are not just going to buy them in pieces like that. Probably, we will buy direct from the manufacturing companies..."

Two days later, Mrs Odusote's boss, Minister of Agriculture Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, denied that government had a plan to spend N60 billion on such phones. He said the Permanent Secretary "was totally misquoted out of context," probably a deliberate misplay of words. Adesina however said the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development plans to procure 10 million mobile phones for farmers as part of its agricultural transformation agenda. The aim, he said, is "to connect farmers to information, expand their access to markets, improve their access to savings and loans and help them adapt to climate change dynamics that affect them and their livelihoods."

Pray, what is the difference between what the perm sec said and minister's "correction"? He confirmed that 10 million phones will be bought, and he justified the policy in the same terms that the perm sec did. His only quarrel was with the overall project cost of N60 billion. But the 4,000 to 6,000 naira range quoted by the perm sec is the actual price of the cheapest Chinese-made phone handsets in Nigeria. N6,000 multiplied by 10 million comes to N60 billion, exactly what the perm sec said. In any case, between a minister and a perm sec who knows budget figures better, since the perm sec is the ministry's accounting officer?

Dr. Adesina should therefore quit his hair-splitting defence over total figures and address the main issue: the senselessness, irrelevance and totally misplaced priority of this plan. It has already been roundly condemned by many farmers, businessmen and local agric experts as not addressing the real problems of the farming community.

It is claimed that the phones are meant to convey to a new generation of young farmers information about commodity prices, weather forecasts and access to agric financing. To begin with, this "young generation" of farmers is not yet here. Wizened old illiterate farmers still dominate the agric scene all over this country and no agric "transformation plan" can get rid of them anytime soon. What they principally need are farming inputs, agric loans, guaranteed prices, storage facilities and pest control measures, not cell phones.

Right now, there are 110 million active cell phone lines in Nigeria. Adesina is right that most of these are concentrated in the urban areas, but there are enough of them in the semi-urban and rural areas to convey any useful information that anyone has to convey. Certainly politicians, businessmen, commodity traders and even criminals make adequate use of the current phone penetration in the rural areas in pursuit of their activities. They did not distribute cell phones to anyone in order to facilitate it. A rural farmer may not have a cell phone and even if he has, may not be able to read weather forecasts and commodity price lists. However, his child, friend or neighbour may have one right now and would tell him any information that he believes would be of use to him.

Where, even, is the information that minister Adesina is talking about? The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and its partner the Federal Ministry of Information Technology have not created the efficient database of weather forecasts and market prices that they are talking about. Had they done so, they would find that farmers would find the means to access it under the current phone penetration level without adding 10 million phones to the mix.

In any case, information conveyed on a cell phone is only of so much use. What difference does it make to a farmer who produced 20 bags of maize if you tell him that corn prices in New York are higher than they are at his village market? Or how can mere cell phone information solve the problem of agric financing? Our farmers have been to the gates of commercial and development banks many times without securing any loans.

Dr. Adesina is reputed to be a foreign-based expert in agriculture. Yet, this plan to distribute N60 billion cell phones to rural farmers is the kind of reality disconnect that many Nigerians fear about bringing in a foreign "expert" and placing him in charge of such a traditional area as agriculture. He may have all the knowledge about how the European Union countries built up their Wheat Mountains and lakes of milk, but does not seem to know how to move Nigerian agriculture forward.

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