By Tami Hultman
Abuja — Nigeria's agriculture minister today responded to a barrage of criticism about the planned distribution of cell phones to the country's poorest farmers.
Opposition politicians attacked the idea, and news articles and editorials criticized it as ill conceived. Yesterday, for example, the widely read Punch newspaper, said farmers need fertilizer and other goods, not phones. The paper quoted a farmers' association member saying the funds government approves for agriculture are "hijacked" before reaching farmers.
That's precisely the point of the new initiative, say agriculture ministry officials. The scheme replaces a government-controlled program that purchased fertilizer and seeds with one that supplies farmers through the private sector, using vouchers distributed via mobile phones.
At a press conference this afternoon at State House, Agriculture Minister Akinwumi Adesina, a prominent agricultural economist who joined the cabinet a year-and-a-half ago, said that government procurement and distribution of fertilizer "led to massive leakages" and had been subsidizing corruption, not farmers. "A new system had to be found that would address the corruption by reaching legitimate farmers directly," he said.
Part of an ambitious strategy to transform agriculture, the Growth Enhancement Support (GES) initiative has registered 4.2 million farmers and 200 agricultural dealers, according to ministry records. The scheme uses farmers' cell phones as electronic wallets – distributing vouchers amounting to a 50 per cent subsidy for purchase of fertilizer.
"For the first time in Nigeria we can tell you the names, addresses and phone numbers of each farmer who received subsidized inputs from the government," Adesina said. "The GES scheme provides us with a fair, equitable, accountable and transparent means of distributing farm inputs to our rural farmers."
The minister said 1.2 million farmers received their subsidized fertilizers and seeds through cell phone vouchers in the past year, resulting in the addition of 8.1 million metric tons to Nigeria's domestic food supply. He said the increased production helped to avoid a predicted food crisis when the worst floods in 5o years, beginning in July, displaced over two million people and took the lives of over 350, according to Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency.
Now the pilot programme will be extended to reach farmers who don't already have cell phones by working out ways for them to obtain the devices.
The Sun newspaper called that plan "quite laughable", saying "any farmer that is worth the name can afford to own one, and most likely has one already."
Adesina today contested that widespread perception, saying government policy must 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," he told State House reporters. "We found that 71% 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."
Estimates by the country's bureau of statistics and the Food and Agricultural Organization, a United Nations agency based in Rome, suggest that the country has some 14 million farmers. The agriculture ministry hopes to assist two million poor farmers to acquire phones this year, gradually scaling up to a level of 10 million phones – half of which will be targeted to women.
Agriculture will partner with the Ministry of Communications Technology to provide vouchers to subsidize the direct purchase of phones by farmers from cell phone companies. Details are still being discussed, but farmers must be registered on the e-wallet platform to qualify for a phone voucher.
Adesina told reporters: "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."
Ministry officials say the phones could eventually be used for multiple purposes, from communicating weather and climate information to accessing market data. Experiences in other African countries show such uses can deliver higher prices to farmers who sell their excess production to earn needed income.
Agriculture officials will work with willing cell phone companies to implement the voucher scheme. If phone venders would agree to reduce prices for farmers who qualify for the GES program, it could scale up more rapidly, multiplying the number of potential customers for the companies.
Beyond its short-term goals, the ministry hopes to encourage phone companies to expand their infrastructure to areas of the country now outside the range of cellular networks. A growing user base could provide financial incentives for that investment, cementing what the government hopes will be a model for public-private partnerships to benefit Nigeria.
In a conversation last week, Adesina said that the phones-for-farmers plan, while important, is only a small part of his ministry's drive to make Nigeria self-sufficient in food. The country spends U.S. $11 billion annually to import staples like wheat and rice as well as other foods – draining financial reserves and fueling inflation.
The minister and a team of like-minded colleagues – some of whom left well-paid positions in international capitals to join the campaign – believe they are in a race to implement irreversible and sustainable reforms. Whatever the results of future elections, they aim to leave a legacy of fundamental change.
This article is the first of a series about Nigeria's efforts to reduce poverty and hunger, fight malaria and other diseases, and improve rates of mother and child survival. The Rockefeller Foundation provides assistance for AllAfrica's reporting on targeted interventions to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable and improve human well-being. AllAfrica's development reporting is supported by a major grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.