The plan of the Federal Government to distribute 10 million cell phones to farmers in the country sounds like a huge joke. Although the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, has corrected the report that the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, Mrs. Ibukun Odusote, said the phones would be bought by the government at the cost of N60 billion, his explanation that the phones will be supplied to farmers through Public/Private Sector partnership, does not detract from the folly of the initiative.
The scheme, which is to involve a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Ministries of Agricultural Resources and Rural Development, Women Affairs and Communication, is clearly out of place. While it is true as the minister has said that cell phones will help to increase farmers’ access to information on climate change and loan opportunities, and boost agricultural production in the country, giving out of free telephones to farmers is not the best way to boost their productivity. Telephones cannot be said to be the greatest need of Nigerian farmers today. They are neither fertilisers nor agricultural implements.
The telephone is also clearly not the best way to reach farmers who mostly live in the rural areas. Rural information centres, traditional communication models and the radio are much better channels. There are also many more direct initiatives through which the government can boost agricultural production in the country, than provision of telephones. More importantly, the government does not need to buy telephones for farmers because those among them who could use such phones, already have them.
With handsets selling for as low as between N2000 and N3000 in the country, any farmer that is worth the name can afford to own one, and most likely has one already. If they do not, what the government needs to do is to empower them to be able to afford such a basic tool. They should not have to rely on handouts or any public/ private sector mumbo-jumbo plan to get one. The very fact that the government has to go into this grandiose plan to provide handsets for farmers suggests grinding poverty amongst farmers in Nigeria.
The minister has explained that the phones are to be given to farmers to trigger an information revolution that will drive an agricultural revolution among agricultural workers who constitute 70 per cent of the Nigerian population. Five million of the handsets, he said, are to be given to women. However, we wonder how the government arrived at the figure of 10 million phone sets for farmers in Nigeria without a comprehensive database of farmers in the country. How, again, would 10 million cell phones serve the needs of farmers that the minister said constitute 70 percent of Nigeria’s 160 million population?
This entire phone scheme appears more designed to facilitate billion naira contracts for phone suppliers, than increased food production in the country. This is even more so as the young persons the government says it wants to attract into farming with this type of initiative are already using more advanced communication gadgets and may not need or appreciate the cheap phones the government is arranging for them. If the government is truly interested in helping farmers to boost food production, we expect that the first step will be to identify the farmers where they are and classify them into groups.
This should be followed up with direct intervention in terms of availability of affordable fertilisers and farming implements. The farmers in the rural areas can be educated on how to improve their farming methods through traditional communication channels and the radio. Farmers need good roads to evacuate their produce to the markets.
Government should also build massive silos and buying produce in season off farmers to reduce wastage, improve their profitability and ensure availability of farm produce at reasonable prices through the year. For any serious intervention in the agricultural sector, ascertaining the demographics of this class of Nigerians is not negotiable. The farmers can also be assisted with soft loans at reasonable interest rates.
These are the ways to help farmers, not through gargantuan schemes designed more to sell phones, (which are unlikely to get to the farmers, anyway), than to help food production. We see no merit at all in this 10 million farmers’ phones scheme. It should be jettisoned. Whatever funds and efforts the government and its private partners want to commit to this scheme should be re-deployed to more productive uses in the agricultural sector of the economy.