Citizen Concerns: The 10 Million Mobile Phones Policy
By Tukeni Obasi
A recent report alleging that the federal government has earmarked N60 billion to buy 10 million mobile phones for distribution to farmers has irked more than a handful of Nigerians. While some have described the policy as a “half-brained initiative”, others have criticized the minister as out of touch with the Nigerian situation. At this point, the question arises: what is it about these mobile phones that has made Nigerians so furious?
For many, it boils down to a disagreement over policy priorities. The detractors of this policy contend that in the absence of good roads, steady power supply, storage facilities, improved network service, distributing cell phones should be the last thing on the agenda. For some others, it is a case of a misplacement of turf. In his Sahara Reporters article, one analyst argues this project should be entirely private-sector driven and funded. Yet the official statement from the minister of agriculture, Dr. Akin Adesina, has clarified that the funds for this will not come from the government’s pocket (indeed, if 60 billion of the allocated N80 billion for agriculture this year is spent on mobile phones, there will be little left for anything else). Rather, the money is expected to come from the Universal Service Provision Fund and through a public-private partnership with mobile operators and service providers in Nigeria.
Speaking to the importance of cell phones, the minister said that this policy is part of the effort to modernize the sector. Essentially, the idea is to “ connect farmers to information, expand their access to markets, improve their access to savings and loans, and help them adapt to climate change dynamics that affect them and their livelihoods”. Furthermore, because there is a wide gap between cellphone penetration in the urban and rural areas, the focus on rural farmers is so that they can be part of the technological revolution (through increased flow of information) that will transform the sector. Citing the Growth Enhancement Support (GES) system through which fertilizer allocations for farmers were confirmed on their mobile phones, Dr. Adesina, said that this policy, the first of its kind on the continent, has helped to phase out the old practice of allocations which was riddled with corruption.
In an April 2012 article entitled “Mobile Technology for Upward Mobility in Agriculture”, I pointed out several ways mobile technology can be used to transform rural agriculture. They included: the provision of policy benefits to farmers; fast and efficient agricultural transactions through mobile banking; quick access to helplines, and other information systems; financial assistance through lending and insurance schemes; tracking and planning travel and distribution logistics include time and cost; and networking with other agricultural entrepreneurs/stakeholders or consumers. Following that article, a farmer wrote to me, explaining how mobile technology transformed his agri-practice especially in relation to out-of-town purchases and financial transactions thus reducing operation costs, expanding his client base, and increasing his income. Pleased to learn about the other areas mentioned, he disclosed that he was going to explore these other avenues.
Conceding these potential benefits of mobile phones, another analyst has wondered “how exactly mobiles phone can assist rural farmers in a country like Nigeria where [there is a] lack of investments in roads, education, financial services and so forth.” When farmers cannot adequate store and transport their foods to the right markets, of what use is better information? Without stable power supply and phone service, how will these phones be charged and sustained in very remote areas? Other questions on the minds of Nigerians can easily be guessed: how will illiterate farmers who struggle to manage a bank account, apply for loans and do basic paperwork be able to read, track, and network on their phones? Without farm machinery and other important farm inputs, how will farmers increase the quality of the products they are marketing through their phones? Should not the money have been spent on tractors, or rural infrastructure?
All these concerns are valid concerns. Add to these that if there is a perceived lack of want of mobile phones on the part of rural farmers who would rather be given a tractor or improved seed varieties, resentment might follow the distribution of these phones. Those in international development are all too familiar with the handout effect, where the handout which is perceived to meet a certain need for the beneficiary is wasted or sold. The stories of the mosquito nets disbursed to some beneficiaries of Bono’s Malaria No More Campaign or some ex-militants in the South-south who were given telephone packs to set up commercial call centres are cases in point. In both cases, the beneficiaries of the well-intentioned policy decided that they were better off with monetary worth of the product and consequently sold their handouts off.
Yet if the world continue moving at its current fast pace, if ignorance and stagnation are becoming costlier especially in a knowledge-intensive field like agriculture which benefits from innovation systems centered around demand-driven research, can one or two or ten million rural farmers really afford to stay disconnected? If we are honest with ourselves, our answer will not be in the affirmative. However, the mobile phones cannot be distributed immediately without proper foundations and precedents. The suggestion to order our agricultural priorities is thus relevant. Also important is exploring what policies can not only go hand in hand but be mutually reinforcing within and beyond the agricultural economy. Furthermore, there is a need to intensify extension services to make sure that farmers are well equipped to take advantage of technological innovations. Certain incentives should also be created or advertised beforehand (such as a fertilizer voucher package or a built-in audio tutorial or a mobile app which is relatively easy to use). Or perhaps the phone should not be 100% free of charge. The decision to make this project private-sector funded is a good one. Equity financing and other investment channels should be explored. Headway also needs to be made in infrastructural development, as this is a sine qua non of any sustainable national transformation agenda.
In the final analysis, instead of dismissing the mobile phone policy as a completely useless idea, Nigerians should come together to explore areas in which our knowledge, resources and strengths, resources and can be leveraged. Stakeholders should be bold enough to air their concerns and policymakers and practitioners must be humble enough to listen and clarify or modify the agenda. It is only by so doing that our agricultural pillars of success will be erected, allowing us build to our transformation edifice one block at a time.
What are your thoughts on this policy?
Read Dr. Adesina’s Press Rebuttal here.