opinionBy Ahmad Salkida
Last December, Ibukun Odusote, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, saw a need to let Nigerians know what impressive work her ministry was doing. She disclosed that they were in the process of procuring some 10 million mobile phones worth about N60 billion from China and the US for free distribution to rural farmers across the country.
According to Mrs. Odusote, the funds had already been appropriated with distribution expected to take off first quarter of 2013. She pointed that the plan was part of the e-wallet project under which her ministry planned to educate, inform and communicate with the farmers in the rural areas on the latest and best agricultural practices, as well as the current prices of commodities in the market.
To the ears of the technocrats, Mrs. Odusote's words sounded like music. But to Nigerians, long-accustomed to being ruled by a thieving, wasteful class, this was a further evidence to confirm their fears. There was a national outcry on all media platforms regarding the size of the appropriation, and the purpose for which it is budgeted.
Sensing that could potentially backfire, the Minister of Agriculture, Akinwunmi Adeshina, hastily took the podium, and argued that the agricultural transformation agenda was carried out with the aim of connecting farmers to information, expanding their access to markets, improving their access to savings and loans, and helping them adapt to climate change dynamics affecting them and their livelihoods.
With its hand most likely forced by the criticism, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development eventually released more details about the project. Initial reports had indicated that the government planned to spend NGN60 billion (US$381 million) to buy phones and distribute them to farmers; but the minister in charge has since stated that there will be no direct procurement of phones by the federal government and that there is "no NGN60 billion anywhere to be used to buy cell phones."
According to the minister, farmers will acquire mobile phones through network operators in their locality, paying for the devices with vouchers issued by the government. Mr. Adesina did not state how much value in monetary terms could be placed on the vouchers that government would issue to the estimated 10 million farmers. The authorities say they will work in partnership with mobile operators, which will sell the devices through their retail outlets. Once a farmer buys a phone and a SIM card, an e-wallet account will be opened through which he can receive vouchers to buy fertilizers, seeds at subsidized rates and access certain information.
The Minister's explanations sounded better thought-out than the initial press reports of random distribution of free mobile phones to farmers, but the details failed to altogether wipe out the public misgivings on the project. The initiative seems not targeted at benefiting the already funded federal government rural development projects. For example, the Nigerian Communications Commission runs the Universal Service Provision Fund, which is dedicated to improving information and communications technology in underserved areas, including rural zones, yet at the time the project was conceived, it appears, there was no interface between the two offices.
Strangely, inquiries at the ministry over the procurement process have revealed little information. Officials at the procurement unit of the ministry are not involved in any part of the process. In fact, an official who spoke here on condition of anonymity said that "the whole thing is between the minister's office and the Presidency. It is actually called presidential project" and at such, procurement processes are never followed. This is part of why the public procurement statute was enacted to ensure that all public procurement processes followed clear and transparent steps.
Beyond the zero public procurement process attributable to this "phone-for-farmers" controversy, the Public and Private Development Centre, (PPDC) that monitors adherence, or lack of it, in procurements made by government agencies, has found out that a swirl of additional controversy is building dramatically around the project. Two other public agencies have literally drawn a line in the sand over the project. The Federal ministries of Women Affairs as well as Communications have petitioned the Presidency over the implementation of the project. In effect, the project is bedeviled by official intrigues and power-play.
The Communication ministry has argued that irrespective of who the target beneficiaries of the project are, they consider themselves better equipped technically to implement the project and bring value to the end users. On its part, the Women Affairs ministry has raised issues with focus on the number of women targeted to benefit. Not only, according to findings by our investigation, is the Women Affairs contending for a size able percentage of beneficiaries to be of the womenfolk, officials of the ministry argue in their petition to the Presidency that they are the only ministry capable of ensuring that justice on this matter was meted out to the womenfolk.
Our inquiries suggest that the Women Affairs ministry may have obtained the valuable listening ears of the wife of the President, Patience Jonathan, making further progress by the Agriculture ministry nearly unattainable.
A 2007 World Bank report on developing countries including Nigeria, seems to have strengthened the argument in favour of the project along the lines developed by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. The report affirms that most small-scale farming systems in the third world would be much more productive and profitable than they presently are if they obtain access to inputs and credit as well as the ability to bear risks. It concludes that access to information was key for farmers to overcoming their unproductive status.
Irrespective of which of the ministries gets the final Presidential nod to handle the project implementation, it has become obvious that the project will not benefit from any transparent public procurement process. The traditional procurement units in these ministries seem ill-equipped. Nor do they have the requisite political clout to subject to scrutiny and question a project over which the serving minister had endorsed as being central in the President's transformation Agenda.
Several organizations have requested from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development copies of procurement records with regards to the ministry's procurement process under the GES Scheme. Documents made available to this writer showed a duly acknowledged request for information was made using the combined provisions of the Public Procurement Act, 2007 and the Freedom of Information Act, 2011 on the 21st of January, 2013 PPDC. As of date, the PPDC is yet to receive a response from the Ministry which is a clear contravention of the provisions of the FOI Act.
For Mr. Adesina, farming is becoming a more time-critical and information-intense business. A push towards higher productivity will require an information-based decision-making agricultural system. Farmers must get information at the right time and place. Research in Sri Lanka recently found that the cost of information, from planting decision to selling at the wholesale market, can make up to 11% of total production costs.
An official of the ministry, in agreeing with the minister's understanding of agriculture as a business, puts the farming cycle - and the use of mobile applications in agriculture - into a broader perspective and adopts a view of agricultural activities within their entire economic, social and institutional environment. It tries to understand existing initiatives and experiences as well as the potential of mobile technologies to foster the productivity and performance of individual farmers, of the agro-food value chain including its supporting services, and the agricultural sector as a whole.
However, Nkem Ilo, the team leader at PPDC, it is not entirely so much of technological application as it is about the evident "secrecy" surrounding the process. She argues that even the absence of commodity stock market in Nigeria makes the tracking of process to productivity as well as profit untenable and therefore bound to fall short on goals achievement. She argues that countries that have successfully placed climate change and food security within their policy purview in agricultural initiatives have tended to be more successful, indicating an inclination towards a 'bottom-up' approach rather than 'top-bottom' approach indicative of this policy.
Dr. Bukar Usman of Srilgroup limited, an agricultural company based in northeastern Nigeria, sees the 'phone for farmers scheme' differently, agreeing with the minister that 'it is the next best thing for farmers in Nigeria'. "It is no doubt a brilliant step to transform agriculture in the country to compete with oil revenue but my fear is the initiative seeks to address the problem of agriculture from the top to bottom instead of from bottom to the top. They also need to eliminate corruption, build infrastructure, create enabling environment for grassroots farmers in Nigeria to compete with their counterparts in developed countries".
For Mrs. Nkem, people should not lose sight of cost and sustainability of the project. "Averagely, it will cost the Ministry at least 70 kobo per SMS and when you multiply that to 10 million farmers it gives you N700 million for only a batch of SMS. The average months for the raining season in Nigeria is 6 months, a time the farmers may require frequent information flow, at least, twice a week. This will give us a minimum of N33.6billion".
Salkida is an independent investigative journalist.