By BEN AGANDE
ABUJA—Despite criticisms that have trailed the proposed purchase of cell phones for farmers in the country, the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Akinwunmi Adeshina, yesterday reiterated that there was no going back on the policy as government was committed to enhancing the performance of Nigerian farmers.
Addressing newsmen, the minister said government would not commit itself to direct purchase of the cell phones for farmers but would only subsidise the phones through a partnership that would involve telephone service operators, Ministry of Communications Technology and other stakeholders.
According to him, the decision by government to subsidise the purchase of cell phones for farmers is tied to the distribution of fertilizers directly to the farmers without the involvement of third parties who had allegedly been ripping them off.
He said: “Government policy must always be based on evidence and well analyzed data. We carried out an analysis of our GES work based on a large sample of 426,000 farmers from various local government areas in 13 states.
“We found that 71 percent of farmers sampled did not have cell phones. This shows that many of our farmers in rural areas are quite poor and are excluded from the benefits of the mobile phone revolution going on in Nigeria.
“These farmers cannot access the GES scheme without cellphones and we must find a way to include them. They must not be left behind.”
The minister said the ministry planned to make phones available to farmers on a gradual basis, pointing out that government would not be involved in direct purchase of phones.
“Of course, we cannot get 10 million phones to all farmers who do not have phones this year. Our plan is a gradual scale up. We intend to get about 2 million phones to farmers who do not have phones this year”.
“How will these phones be paid for and how will they be distributed? We ended four decades of corruption in the fertilizer and seed sector by ending direct procurement and distribution of these inputs by the government.
“We also ended the ineffective and corrupt direct procurement and distribution of tractors by government. It will therefore be inconsistent for government to now start direct procurement and distribution of phones.
“There will be no direct procurement of phones by the Federal Government. We are also not going to give anyone contracts to import phones from China or anywhere else. Let me also state loud and clear.
“The Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Communications Technology are partnering together to implement this policy,” he emphasised.
On who will be eligible to benefit from the scheme, the minister said “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. The government simply subsidizes the cost of the phone directly to the farmer.
“We intend to start by first targeting farmers who live in areas where there is network coverage already but who do not have phones. We will then encourage phone companies to increase their coverage and as they do we will target farmers in those areas.
“By so doing phone companies will have the incentive to expand to rural areas because our programme will assure them of customers in those new areas. Cell phones in the hands of our farmers will do more than deliver government subsidized inputs.
“It will provide them access to market price information. They will be able to bargain better and save themselves from the middlemen who currently exploit them by paying them very low prices for their produce.
“Cellphones in the hands of our farmers will allow us to reach farmers with extension information such as what crops to plant, when to plant and other agronomic practices that will help them improve their productivity.
“It will allow farmers to better deal with shocks such as drought and floods in real time. Simple alerts to farmers’ phones can help them avoid catastrophes while saving lives.
“Majority of our farmers are excluded from financial services. 78.8 percent of Nigeria’s rural population are unbanked according to the report by Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access, EFInA. The cost of reaching them in rural areas is high for financial institutions.
“No bank can afford to build branches in every little village. Cellphones provide financial institutions with a low cost and efficient way of providing financial services to our farmers. The use of cellphones to provide financial services in rural areas is not new. It is already being used in several African countries.”
Dr Akinwunmi reiterated that despite the criticism, he would not be deterred in his determination to change the agricultural sector, noting that “as Minister, I cannot use hype to guide policies. I must use evidence to guide policies. When the floods occurred, there was panic in the land.
Some derided our efforts and said Nigeria would have famine; that there would be massive food shortage; and there would be food riots. Those who wanted to import food and get waivers from government sponsored such media hypes. I was not moved.
“We used modern technology to guide our decision. Using remote sensing and satellite imagery, we mapped out the extent of the flood and determined that no more than 1.17 percent of our total cultivated area was affected by the floods. Our detractors wanted the world to believe the opposite, that food crisis was imminent. They were wrong. Today, five months after the floods, we do not have a food crisis.
“The same way these detractors have misled the public about the relevance of cellphones in Nigerian agriculture. They do not know that we are already using cellphones to distribute fertilizer and seeds to even mitigate the impact of the flood. We are already using cellphones to reach 232,000 farmers for rice production in the dry season, each getting three bags, across 10 states of the north east, north west 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 two bags of fertilizers per farmer, plus one bag of agrolyser micronutrient to replace some of the soil micronutrients that have been washed away by the flood. Such is the power of cellphones revolutionizing agriculture today in Nigeria.
“I will not be distracted. We will rebuild the broken walls of Nigeria’s agriculture and unlock wealth and opportunities for our farmers. For those calling for my crucifixion, let me say that when Jesus was before Pilate, they had accused him falsely.
Pilate, after listening to his case, found no cause for condemning him. Nonetheless, should anyone still want me crucified, let me say this, along my faith: “I am crucified with Christ already. Nevertheless, I live and the life that I live, I live by the grace of the son of God, who died for me,” he said.