Just when you are about to give him the benefit of doubt, President Goodluck Jonathan always come up with something new. He takes pleasure in providing his critics reasons to haul stones at him. For a president who promised to surprise Nigerians in 2013, starting the year with a lot of gaffes is definitely not a good not a good beginning, but those gaffes are nothing compared to what would seem as the latest in the series of pre-arranged scams his administration has penned down to perpetrate in office until we booth him out in 2015, God willing.
Just 3 days into 2013, the Jonathan administration commenced the unfolding of his baggage of surprises with a disclosure by the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ibukun Odusote that the administration has concluded plans to provide mobile phones worth about N60billion to 10 million rural farmers in the country.
The basis of the policy is reportedly that in the quest of the administration to make Nigeria self sufficient in food production, the government took the decision so as to enable the ministry of agriculture send sms on useful farming tips; such as when to plant, irrigate, harvest farm products, when and how to access fertilizers so as to maximise their yield on national food security.
In an economy where fundamental infrastructures like road, electricity, etc have been taken care of, one can pass the policy as a brilliant one, but not in a Nigeria where the least of the problem of farmers is a mobile phone.
Deploying mobile phones in agriculture services and rural developments has proved to be very helpful in increasing the income of farmers, especially in rural areas. It has also helped to improve the efficiency of markets, reduce transaction costs, and offer a great opportunity for innovative interventions, especially in service delivery, but in order to realize the full potential of enhanced communication of market information, the use of mobiles must be coupled with additional investments (in roads, education, financial services, amongst many others). This is definitely not the case in Nigeria.
I am still wondering how exactly mobiles phone can assist rural farmers in a country like Nigeria where lack of investments in roads, education, financial services and so forth is complacent and am also concerned about how it can help the government in attaining self sufficiency in food production which the Jonathan’s administration claims as its priority.
With the identified positive impact that mobile phones have on farming and agriculture as a whole, how applicable is it within the Nigerian context? First, you would want to ask how the Ministry of Agriculture came about the 10 million rural farmers. Does it have a data base of farmers in Nigeria? What criteria did they use in selecting the 10 million rural farmers? Well, I am not privy to whatever information the ministry has at its disposal, but one thing is sure, my grandfather, a very rural farmer is not among the 10 million farmers. I doubt if there is even anybody in the corridors of power that realises he exists as a farmer, even though it is a vocation he has practised all his life.
Now to the basics. Majority, if not all of the rural farmers whom the phones will be provided for live in settlements where electricity does not exist. The government said in addition to the mobile phones, the farmers will also be provided with solar-powered lamps with which they could charge the cell phones, but this is not just wasteful but also unsustainable. Realising also that most of these settlements or villages don’t even have telecommunication services present in the area, the federal government said they are talking with the telecommunication service providers to go into the hinterlands and create and expand their networks so that farmers can have access.. What they failed to realise however is that these providers do not set up their services just anywhere because the government wants them to, they do so because they want to make profit. These two phenomenon leaves us with the challenge of how the farmers will use their phones to communicate and power them for use.
There is also the issue of the literacy level of the rural farmers who are going to be the beneficiaries of the mobile phones. Since they said text messages are going to be sent to the farmers on what to do to improve their farm yields, the government is less concerned about how many of those farmers are literate enough to read whatever text message the ministry of agriculture will be sending.
Farmers are faced with the challenges of using modern farming equipments to go into mechanised farming and boost their yields, but this has not got the attention of the government. Even at instances where farmers strive to make outputs with the use of primitive farming equipments, several other challenges like how this produce are stored, how they are transported even to the nearest market stares them in the face.
In most of the rural areas in Nigeria, roads from farm settlements to other places especially markets are nothing to write home about. Farm goods are essentially transported primitively as they were produced because there are no inter-connected roads that are motorable from one village to another. What this means is that most goods, particularly the perishable ones are destroyed before they get to their destinations. To make matters worse, storage and processing facilities which would have helped to preserve these goods at least for a given period of time before they are finally transported are not available in those rural areas, the resultant effect is that huge amount of money which ought to accrue to the farmers from those produce are lost, with further effects noticeable in areas like job creation and empowerment.
Sadly, none of these is of concern to the government. What they are rather interested in are shot cuts that eventually leads to nowhere, except for the money that usually ends up in the pockets of individuals.
Even though I have stated the benefits of deploying mobile phones to boost agricultural production, and the needs for farmers to own one, not minding other challenges that stares them in the face, the government has absolutely no business in its provision. The N60 billion the government has planned to purchase the mobile phones for rural farmers will not add an inch to our sorry state of self sufficiency in food production in this present circumstance. Such money should rather be channeled into investments in agriculture which has tripple effects on the eventual output that are made in farming activities. Such investments will not only make farming lucrative, it will lead to the production of sufficient food for local consumption and even exports if need be.
The N60 billion naira for example can be channelled into opening rural road that connect farmers from their farmlands to the market. Just as I was putting this piece together, I watched the Nigerian Television Authority interview a rural farmer who specialises in the farming of onion. The farmer said he can produce 8 to 10 bags of onion per farming season, but because of distance and absence of market close to his farm. he has to keep them at home for family consumption because he cannot transport them to the market. How much of these onions do you think the farmer and his family members can consume? A large quantity of it will definitely be thrown away when they decay.
N60 billion can purchase a minimum of 1500 tractors which can be distributed to all the local government in the country so as to aid farmers in the cultivation of their farm lands rather than employing the use of the conventional hoe and cutlass that produces low output. N60 Billion can also go a long way in providing processing facilities in most of our rural areas, so that most of the perishable goods which ordinarily cannot be transported in its raw form can be processed into finished or semi-finished good to avoid loss. The government can do this by making the fund available to investors in form of equity contribution so as to encourage them to establish such processing centres close to areas where the produce are harvested. The government can use the money to provide storage facilities for the farmers so as to prolong the life span of the produce. Ultimately, the government can make the N60 billion it intends to use in importing mobile phones available as low interest loans to farmers through micro finance banks and co-operative societies with strict guidance on its application to ensure the effective utilisation of the fund for the required purpose.
All of these do not matter to the government. What is more important is how available money can be distributed among cronies under the guise of awarding contract to would be suppliers of the phones. Suffix to add that most of these phones, if they are eventually imported as we have been told, may not even get to a large percentage of the would-be beneficiaries. After benefitting from the supposed importation of the phones, it is the same set of people that will pop up imaginary names of farmers whom the phones will be given to.
Our president has promised to surprise us in 2013 and given the record of lows that has come from his plans, policies and programme, Nigerians should only brace up for more heart breaking policies geared towards ‘transforming’ the country.
Abubakar Sidiq Usman is an Urban Planning consultant and an Active Citizen working towards a better Nigeria. His goal is to positively influence the way you think about everything in the society.
He blogs on http://abusidiqu.com and can be engaged on twitter – @Abusidiqu