For a couple of weeks now since the issue of N60 billion cell phones to farmers came to the front burner, there has been a deluge of criticism over the government's burning desire to inject the entire rural space of the country with cellphones.
But even after the Agriculture Minister, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina attempted to clear the air on the raging controversy, that no such amount was ever earmarked for such project, saying government was planning to distribute only two million phones to farmers this year, that move has not doused the ill feelings generated by that initiative.
Saturday Vanguard went to town to feel the pulse of farmers and stakeholders on the issue. Those who spoke to us vehemently said the whole arrangement was faulty, while others described it as a misplaced priority.
Justifying its position, the Federal Government maintained that whether small, medium or large farmers, they all need information and communication systems. Truly, connecting to supermarkets, value chains, and international markets require that farmers know and meet stringent consumer-driven grades and standards; as well as curbing corruption and those doing brisk businesses with several government intervention measures like the fertilizers, seed sectors and agric loans. This, government believes can only be achieved through distribution of cellphones where direct communication could take place between government and the farmers. We present the stakeholders different positions.
Apparently, in a bid to clear the air on the controversial N60billion cellphones to farmers, the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina elucidated on the need for providing cellphones to farmers, saying it would curb sharp practices in the sector anytime government tries to connect with farmers.
The minister cited the procurement and distribution of subsidized fertilizers in the past arguing that people took advantage of the situation, and at the end, less than 11 percent farmers got the fertilizers.
He said: "Some of the fertilizers paid for by government were never delivered to the warehouses. Some of the fertilizers delivered contained more sand than fertilizers while a large portion of the fertilizers subsidized by government found its way across our borders to neighboring countries where it was sold at prevailing market prices. Middle men and rent seekers were the ones benefiting from the billions of naira spent every year on fertilizer subsidies. The same applied to the seed sector."
The Minister stated that with clear support from President Jonathan, he was able to nip the trend in the bud within 90 days of assumption of office through the introduction of Growth Enhancement Support, GES, which delivers inputs to farmers directly by using farmers' cellphones.
"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. We developed the first ever registered data base of farmers in Nigeria, which we will upgrade every year. For the first time ever, we can now base policy decisions on data, not guess work."
"Registered farmers are sent electronic vouchers directly from the federal government to their cell phones. This voucher or e-wallet informs the farmer that he or she is entitled to buy two 50kg bags of fertilizer at 50% of the purchase price. The voucher essentially serves as cash on their phones and this cash covers 50% of the market price of the fertilizer. The farmer therefore pays only 50% of the cost of the fertilizer to the fertilizer retailer. Fertilizer and seed retailers no longer supply seeds and fertilizers directly to government. They now sell directly to farmers. Government helps the farmer to buy inputs by providing direct support through their cellphones (e-wallet)."
Dr Adesina maintained that plans are underway to use the GES scheme to help farmers access tractor hiring services, adding that instead of government procuring tractors for farmers, government will encourage the private sector to establish tractor hiring centers so that farmers can hire tractors from these centers with government subsidizing the cost of hiring tractors through the e-wallet using farmers' cellphones.
That brings the questions: "Why cellphones for farmers?" "Will the fertilizers and seeds be attached to the cellphones?" "Will tractors be attached to the cellphones"? Dr Adesina stated that going by previous experience and the achievement recorded in the area of fertilizer and tractor sectors, "Yes!" It is actually the cell phone that has provided us with the tool to directly access each farmer thereby saving them from corrupt middlemen who make their fortune from exploiting the poor."
He added that "from the data we collected based on farmers' use of cellphones to access fertilizers and seeds last year, we found that the total number of transactions done through phones 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, arguing that the rural farmers are already using the cellphones to transact their businesses.
He stressed that there would be no direct procurement of phones by the federal government, neither will government give anyone contracts to import phones from China or anywhere else, nor there would be N 60billion anywhere to be used to buy cellphones, but maintained that the Ministry of Agriculture and that of Communications Technology would partner together to implement this policy.
"We intend to use the GES scheme to distribute these phones. To be entitled to a phone, farmers must be registered on the e-wallet platform. Paper vouchers will be issued to farmers who do not have phones.
The government will provide a subsidy to the farmer through the voucher to buy the phone. The farmer takes the voucher to the local mobile phone operator and pays the balance which is the difference between the value of the voucher and the cost of the phone.
Once a farmer buys a phone and a SIM card, his new phone number will be updated on the e-wallet database and he will be able to receive his e-wallet voucher which will entitle him to purchase fertilizer and seeds at subsidized rates. Phones will be sold directly to farmers by local mobile phone service providers.
He added that cellphones in the agric sector is not new as several hundreds of thousand farmers are already being reached through their cellphones, benefiting from the robust government programes. "We are already using cellphones to reach 232,000 farmers for rice production in the dry season, each getting 3 bags, across 10 states of the north east, northwest and north central regions.
To reach farmers affected by the flood, we are also using cellphones through the growth enhancement support. We are reaching 98,000 farmers affected by floods across the country with 2 bags of fertilizers per farmer, plus one bag of agrolyser micro-nutrient to replace some of the soil micro-nutrients that have been washed away by the flood. Such is the power of cellphones revolutionizing agriculture today in Nigeria," he stated.