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Nigeria’s ‘free phones for farmers’ plan reveals incoherence of rural strategy

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In 4Q12, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development announced plans for a program under which free phones would be distributed to farmers. The news sparked controversy, an indicator of the extent to which many Nigerians have lost trust in government initiatives, though poor and fragmented communication from the government is also to blame. Criticism of the move came from political opposition, industry observers and ordinary people. The most common complaint from the public was that mobile phones would be of no use to farmers, who instead need tractors, fertilizers, storage areas and processing facilities. Reactions were mixed among telecoms-industry experts. Many feared that the project would soon become a white elephant, financially beneficial only to corrupt officials. But the project could be of good use if implemented in a transparent way.

With its hand most likely forced by the criticism, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development eventually released more details about the project, implemented in mid-January. Initial reports had indicated that the government planned to spend NGN60bn ($381m) to buy phones and distribute them to farmers, but the minister in charge has since stated that there will be no direct procurement of phones by the federal government and that there is “no NGN60bn anywhere to be used to buy cell phones.”

According to the minister, farmers will acquire mobile phones through network operators in their locality, paying for the devices with vouchers issued by the government. The authorities say they will work in partnership with mobile operators, which will sell the devices through their retail outlets. Once a farmer buys a phone and a SIM card, an e-wallet account will be opened through which he can receive vouchers to buy fertilizer and seeds at subsidized rates.

The new details sound better than the initial press reports and rumors of random distribution of free phones to farmers, but the initiative would have been more beneficial if it had been combined with rural projects already ongoing or planned by various government bodies. For example, the Nigerian Communications Commission runs the Universal Service Provision Fund, which is dedicated to improving information and communications technology in underserved areas, including rural zones.

As for the targets themselves, the farmers, the low mobile penetration in rural Nigeria is due to a combination of lack of coverage – meaning that in certain areas a subsidized phone would be of little use – and extreme poverty, which prevents residents from acquiring devices. It is difficult to imagine such a population involved in any agricultural activity other than subsistence farming. Providing financial help via an e-wallet is commendable, however, as an initiative to assist poorer residents and to make efficient use of mobile services.

Using mobile as a tool for communication and efficiency in Africa

Although the program’s schedule and target localities have yet to be announced, we can give some credit to the Nigerian authorities for their apparent willingness to use telecoms infrastructure to improve both the conditions of rural dwellers and the efficiency with which their own social programs are implemented.

Governments in Africa should be moving toward becoming operators’ largest enterprise customers. Most ministries should be allocating resources to an “m-department” dedicated to improving communication between the government and the masses. Had the Nigerian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development implemented a mobile hotline accessible via short code, it would probably have conveyed its message more efficiently and avoided the controversy altogether.

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