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Editorial of the day: Phones for farmers? Hellooo..!

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Editorial of the day: Phones for farmers? Hellooo..!

by The Guardian

As an idea, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture’s plan to spend billions of naira on imported cell phones for a phantom 10 million rural farmers fails any test of reason or wisdom.

As an idea, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture’s plan to spend billions of naira on imported cell phones for a phantom 10 million rural farmers fails any test of reason or wisdom. The motive is suspect especially as the exact sum to be spent on the project keeps changing depending on which official is speaking.

While the permanent secretary, Mrs. Ibukun Odusote, has put the cost of the proposed e-Wallet project at N40 billion or N60 billion, the minister, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, insists that ‘we have not arrived at the budget (yet)’. This in itself is strange because no matter how tentative a proposal is, it is common sense to have some cost to work with. And, in the simple case of buying 10 million mobile phones, as claimed by these high government officials, what rarefied mathematics is required to calculate the cost?

That the ministry would deem a cell phone the most urgent need of the Nigerian farmer today is indeed very strange.

Coming from the ministry on Adesina’s watch, it is doubly mind-boggling. Here is one minister who often appears so determined, well-intentioned and so much on top of his game that he could easily be deemed a star of an administration not renowned for surefootedness.

Both Adesina and Odusote have tried to justify the ‘mobile (phone) initiative’ and in truth, some of the reasons offered are valid. Farmers do need information on market prices of their products, on weather conditions and a reliable channel to communicate with relevant stakeholders in their line of business. The ‘phones-for-farmers’ idea, however, throws up a number of questions, especially on the peculiar state of agricultural development in Nigeria.

Pray, how does access to cell phone contribute directly to the productivity of rural farmers in comparison with a steady and affordable access to farming equipment – trucks, tractors and other farm implements, improved seedlings, cheaper fertiliser, and other productivity-enhancing resources, more and better trained and equipped extension workers, even access roads to move produce out of the farms? And, as Adesina has so often hinted, given the quantity and cost of food that Nigeria imports, nothing can be more urgent and important than to produce more food for local consumption. This, indeed, is a national security challenge that N60 billion or so judiciously spent, would go a long way to address. The goal to, in the words of the minister, ‘trigger an information revolution which will drive an agricultural revolution’ may sound nice, but as a way of addressing the clear and present needs of Nigerian farmers, it is no more than grandiloquence.

Besides, were the farmers, directly or through their respective associations at federal and state levels, consulted on this idea? Were they given options on the most beneficial assistance they would require from government? Adesina spoke about a public-private partnership and an inter-ministerial memorandum of understanding to the project. What exactly do these mean? Billions of naira is a lot of money in a developing economy. Is this expenditure another gift to some lucky people, or would it be recouped from the beneficiaries? If so, how?   As a private-sector-driven economy, surely there are some things that the entrepreneur should be allowed to do for himself.

Time was when the Federal Government embarked on a rural telephony project aimed at making telecommunication accessible to rural communities and generally make them more liveable. This is the purview of the Ministry of Communications. What happened to this idea which, if faithfully implemented, would cost farmers less to use as well as benefit other rural dwellers?

That is what would have fitted perfectly into Adesina’s goal of triggering information revolution and driving agricultural revolution.

The permanent secretary’s reported hope to purchase the phones from China and the U.S., ‘probably …direct from the manufacturing companies’ is not only laughable, it is makes no economic sense and defies a moral one. This is ten million units of production sustaining jobs and creating wealth in other economies! If a nation needs so many handsets from a foreign supplier, that presupposes enough purchasing power to demand that the supplier sets up a factory locally so that Nigerians may be employed, acquire skills, and the Nigerian economy can benefit.

Furthermore, on what basis was it established that there are 10 million rural farmers in Nigeria and by what criteria does a farmer qualify for this phone ‘gift’? Even if the idea was so useful, would a judicious buyer choose a N4,000 or N6,000 phone whereas functional and reliable handsets are on offer at half that price, and even less on bulk purchase?

In one breath, the ministry revealed that the fund for the project has been provided by government; in another breath, the minister denied that any figure has been decided. Between the two highest officials in the ministry, whose report should Nigerians believe? This is one example of why there is no faith in the government. Trust is the fundament of the social contract between the governor and the governed. But trust is sorely lacking in this clime, and in consequence, rumours and suspicion perpetually rules the air. Not a few persons already hold that large figure expenditure by government lately is a subterfuge for a 2015 war chest. Against this backdrop, even if it were a good idea to buy phones for 10 million farmers, the timing is deeply suspect.

If the money is already set aside, it is ipso facto money for the agriculture sector.  Let it be spent judiciously, transparently, and cost- beneficially on that sector.

Nigeria needs revolution in its agricultural sector. Urgently. And the journey should begin with wisdom in thoughts and action.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by The Guardian

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