THE recently announced Ministry of Agriculture's plan to distribute 10 million mobile phones to rural farmers has generated a lot of debate and criticisms. For Many Nigerians, it is a controversial gesture and a misplacement of priorities.
For the avoidance of doubt, mobile phone technology in farming practices has been in use in many developing parts of the world such as in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, and Southern and Eastern Africa, and it has yielded and is yielding enormous benefits for the countries there. So, it should be a welcome idea that the Federal Ministry of Agriculture is introducing it in Nigeria.
What ought to be of serious concern to Nigerians is the manner in which this policy is introduced, how it will run, and a glimpse of the big picture it is expected to paint.
*Why distribute phones to farmers?
*Who is going to pay for these phones?
*Who funds the farmers' air time?
*What are the criteria for selecting who gets the phones?
These, and several other questions, are legitimate, and the government ought to have answered them while planning the introduction of the policy. We hope this is not a case of putting the cart before the horse.
Though there is no available statistic on the mobile phone penetration among rural communities, there is no doubt that a large proportion of the population in those areas do have access to mobile phones. So, the first imperative would have been to organise those farmers who already have access to mobile phones and harness and extract the benefits derived in farming with mobile phones and thereby create a miniature picture of what the broader phone distribution would accomplish.
Secondly, create the antecedents that made some farmers have phones around those who do not so that they can get these phones just like their contemporaries. This can be done through the encouragement of farmer groups and cooperatives. Through these groups and cooperatives, government agencies can reach, educate, train stakeholders and implement the new mobile technology approach to farming. Moreover, a working model of mobile phone-powered farming will entice other farmers to key in.
Generally, the fear is for this policy not to become a journey to nowhere. Distributing phones without the appropriate ground work might not yield a beneficial farming practice that will last very long.
A Plus Resources Ltd, a UK based consultancy firm and the Initiative for Diaspora Knowledge Transfer, an Abuja based think-tank is proposing and advocating the Agri-Hubs model to the Ministry of Agriculture in pursuit of its Agricultural Transformation Agenda (See Vanguard Newspaper 19th October 2012: Agricultural-transformation-agenda: A-case-for-agri-hubs).
The use of mobile technology in agriculture is an integral component of the agri-hubs concept as being proposed.
The mobile networks technology is a unique and unparalleled opportunity to give rural small farm holders access to information that could transform their farming experiences. Instant updates on weather, crop prices, inputs availability, market and financial information can considerably improve their productivity and negotiating positions.
There are already a couple of branded commercial SMS services to farmers like the "Nokia Life" and the Reuters Market Light", etc, which are subscription based. The challenge in this is that as conditions are often different between regions and groups, all-purpose, blanket services as those available at the moment do not always provide the most accurate and most useful information to local farmers. To harness the full benefits of the mobile networks technology, the development of mobile telephone applications with local contents (e.g. language) that capture and share the farmers existing experiences is required.
To avoid falling into the trap of a "top-down" style of information delivery, the mobile telephony farming should be made to work as a collaborative tool. The farmers should be able to input or send information or feedback to the relevant agencies based on their real life, on-field situations.
Farmers should be able to enter data and provide information like varieties sown, yields and fertilizer applications, etc, which could be shared with peers to improve groups' productivities. There should be immense collaboration among the various agencies: MDAs, research, educational, financial institutions and ICT outfits for the project to succeed.
Some level of training and enlightenment will also be required on the part of the farmers in order to enjoy the full potentials of this policy approach. The farmers are more likely to trust information provided by agencies that value their own inputs.
As time goes by, and as the agencies continue to work with the farmers, the more likely it becomes that they will know better the history, conditions and challenges of the areas, hence are able to provide a more accurate and useful information.
BEN NKEMACHOR & JUDE NNADOZIE, agric experts, wrote from the UK.