Some people are asking questions like, “Why cell phones for farmers?” “Will the fertilisers and seeds be attached to the cell phones?” “Will tractors be attached to the cell phones?” The answer is yes. It is actually the cell phone that has provided us with the tool to directly access each farmer thereby saving them from corrupt middlemen who make their fortune from exploiting the poor.
Some people think that our farmers are uneducated and cannot use cell phones. The evidence does not support that. Under the GES scheme, we made it possible for farmers to transact business in their own local languages using their cell phones. From data we collected based on farmers’ use of cell phones to access fertilisers and seeds last year, we found that the total number of transactions done by phone with respect to the GES scheme was 4.9 million. Of these, 1.2 million were in English, 620,000 were in Pidgin, 2.2 million were in Hausa, 854,000 were in Yoruba, and 344 were in Igbo.
From this data, we have no doubt that our farmers are well able to use cell phones. Nigeria is the first country in Africa to launch a GES scheme that delivers farm inputs to farmers using cell phones. We are very proud of this achievement. Several other African countries now want to adopt the same system.
Last year we reached 1.2 million farmers with subsidised inputs via their cell phones. This year we have plans to scale up to reach 5 million farmers. These plans cannot be based on guesstimates or wishful thinking or noise. It must be based on evidence from data. In other words, government policy must always be based on evidence and well analysed 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 cell phones and we must find a way to include them. They must not be left behind. Some are asking how we arrived at the figure of 10 million farmers. Some are even saying we do not have up to 5 million farmers in the nation. The National Bureau of Statistics has estimated the number of farmers in Nigeria as 14 million.
The FAO also has reported a similar number. From the result of our sampling which showed that 71 percent of farmers do not have any phones, we can project to the larger population of 14 million and arrive at an estimate of 10 million farmers who probably do not have phones. Of course, we cannot get 10 million phones to all farmers who do not have phones this year. This is impractical, to say the least. 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 fertiliser 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. Let me say this loud and clear: 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: There is no N60 billion anywhere to be used to buy cell phones.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Communications Technology are partnering together to implement this policy. 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 fertiliser and seeds at subsidised rates. Phones will be sold directly to farmers by local mobile phone service providers. The government simply subsidises the cost of the phone directly to the farmer. Government will work with interested mobile phone service companies to achieve its goal. 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 subsidised 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. Cell phones 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. Cell phones provide financial institutions with a low-cost and efficient way of providing financial services to our farmers. The use of cell phones to provide financial services in rural areas is not new. It is already being used in several African countries. For example, the M-Pesa mobile money system used in Kenya moves millions of dollars between urban and rural areas every year.
Farmers can also participate in agricultural commodity exchange by using their cell phones. This will allow farmers to know if there are buyers interested in the crops they wish to sell, where these buyers are located and the quantity and quality the buyer is looking for. If the farmer can satisfy the requirements of the buyer, a deal can be initiated and the buyer and seller can arrange to meet to complete the transaction. Many African countries have successfully introduced the use of cell phones and ICT to enhance agricultural productivity and access to markets. Nigeria must position herself to do the same.