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Thursday, 3 January 2013

Empowering farmers through mobile phones

Last year Nigerians started off the New Year with the federal government’s (FG) decision to remove fuel subsidy. This year Nigerians kicked off the year with the FG’s initiative to empower 10 million farmers in the rural areas with mobile phones. This initiative has started generating resentments similar to, but milder than, the fuel subsidy removal, from the public, especially on the how much (NGN60bn) the FG has earmarked to spend in procurement of those phones. Amidst those resentments, one thing that is very clear is people’s lack of knowledge on the perceived end product of the initiative. But this is not surprising as we have in Nigeria too many educated, but ignorant, people when it comes to public issues.

Naomi J. Halewood and Priya Surya (2012) on Mobilizing the Agricultural Value Chain in the World Bank report examined how service provided on mobile phones and other mobile devices can “potentially lead to greater efficiencies, reduced transaction costs, and increased incomes” to farmers. In that report, they portrayed mobile networks as “a unique and unparallel opportunity to give rural smallholders access to information that could transform their livelihoods.” They did not just paint the big picture of mobile phones in empowering farmers; they also examined “the key challenges mobile service providers are facing in scaling up their operations to reach critical mass and to ensure sustainability for the development of a whole ecosystem of different stakeholders.”

However, success stories abound on how mobile phone services have improved and are still improving agricultural productivity and earnings of farmers. Caspar van Vark, a guardian professional, on the article Empowering farmers through SMS wrote vividly on how mobile phone services have improved farmers’ agricultural yield and profit through advisory services on crops, weather and market prices. These success stories spread across countries. We saw it in India- through a pilot project that saw fifty thousand farmers benefit from SMS advisory services. In pipeline is the proposed interactive voice response system for illiterate farmers; an initiative that will help Indian farmers receive weather-related information and advisory services in their areas. Also we saw the success story in Rwanda- both farmers and consumers welcomed the idea of mobile phone operator when it was introduced in February 2011 as it gives them access to market prices and allows them to keep track of market crop prices. Nigeria is not and will not be an exception.

The benefits of this great initiative cannot be over emphasized. Beside the ones highlighted by the FG, farmers bargaining power will greatly be increased. This is not rocket science. This is how it works. Farmers are producers of agricultural products and the end products go to the consumers through the middle men- the distributors situated in various local markets. The first person a distributor wants to speak to is the farmer. Distributors know how much they can pay farmers for their products as they move from one market to another making purchase. Technology, which is where the mobile phones come in, creates the playing ground for farmers in remote areas to participate. With their mobile phones in hand they can get correct prices for the products they want because they have got the technology that gives them powers and offers them information that has potential to impact their pricing as they now have variety of prices to choose from. They can now negotiate for better prices. The distributor buys the products cheap (don’t forget the 50% subsidy given to farmers) from the farmers; he gets the products to the market; and sells at cheaper rates to consumers.  

As the FG has pointed out that with its support to the mobile network providers through the Ministry of Communication and Technology the mobile network providers will expand their network coverage to the rural areas where networks do not exist and expand their networks so people can have access to mobile networks and communicate. Majority of farmers in rural areas do not have mobile phones, and even those who have experience fluctuations in networks while they converse owing to poor network coverage. This initiative will enhance further the already existing competition among mobile network providers to spread their networks and it will be a boost and facilitator to infrastructure (for example broadband services) and the IT industry as a whole. It will create a platform for state governments, technologists, private firms and even donor agencies to work together to leverage mobile technologies for better recognition of rural and poor communities in their area of operation.

Amidst the good side of the FG’s initiative to empower farmers with mobile phones, there are challenges that need to be overcome too. For me, though it is necessary to provide farmers with mobile phones so they can gain from the perceived benefits there-from, it is not sufficient. Farmers need information on management practices and even on the seeds they cultivate and among other things. Over the years we have had situations where several research studies are produced and weather forecasts given, but important information generated do not reach the farmers. Farmers need to be trained and educated. Also, this initiative is information-intensive and as such the FG and state governments need to examine their roles in creating enabling environments to tackle the challenges resulting there-from. IT innovators would have to be engaged to develop specific ICT strategies for the agricultural sector to help guide both the public and private sector in creating this enabling environment.


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