Why farmers need phones

The widespread diffusion of ICT, particularly mobile phones is known to have the potential of bridging the digital divide as well as alleviating poverty through the direct and indirect job creation. Mobile money has now become an imperative factor for financial inclusion and the key driver of funds from the informal sector to the formal/banking sector.

The lack of access to a broader set of financial options in rural areas represents a potential constraint to entrepreneurship and the ability to undertake socially and privately profitable investment projects. Participants are geographically scattered, financial transactions are small and rural incomes tend to be unstable.

Narrowing the digital divide is not a subject of debate. It is fundamental to the nation’s goal of becoming one of the top 20 largest economies in the world by the year 2020. Nigeria presently has an estimated population of 160 million people with the number of unbanked populations placed at about 70 per cent. Because it is upon this category of people that Nigeria depends for local supply of food, the agricultural sector has a huge transformational prospect in this case. It is critical and important for financial inclusion.

The cell phone is a portable, revolutionary tool. More people in the world have access to mobile phones than they have to running water, electricity, or even toilets. It comes across as a tool for bringing the rural dwellers into the mainstream economies. As of May 2012, Nigeria’s mobile telecommunications subscribers’ base hit 101.1 million. According to the African Journal of Business Management, published on 15 February, 2012, majority, about 70 per cent of the population in developing countries, particularly in Africa, live in rural areas and have no access to financial services.

In Nigerian agriculture, the women occupy a significant position numerically and in terms of volume of activities. Nigerian women farmers constitute 70 per cent of the country’s agricultural workforce and produce 80 per cent of the country’s food, yet most of them lack access to almost everything that could make farming worthwhile and gainful. They are not only susceptible to the whims and caprices of weather; they also face challenges such as lack of funds, inadequate agricultural information, inability to preserve farm produce, and poor access to the market. Others are lack of information about crop production, pest control, treatment of animals, economic and health information.

The time has come for Nigeria, a developing country, to enhance the contribution of women entrepreneurs to the creation of meaningful and sustainable employment opportunities and poverty alleviation. Improving access to financial services, including savings accounts, can make all the difference. Women are considered good savers, and research has demonstrated that they are more likely to reinvest their savings in their families and communities.

The World Bank notes that gender equality is smart economics as it can raise productivity, improve other development outcomes, including prospects for the next generation, and contribute to more representative decision making in societies. However, various researches have shown that one of the easiest ways to enhance financial inclusion is by enhancing women’s welfare and participation in the nation’s economy.

Recognising that ICT holds great potential for rural dwellers, particularly female farmers, President Goodluck Jonathan, in his widely reported 2013 budget presentation to a joint session of the National Assembly, said his administration will give millions of mobile phones to women farmers. The president had explained that “these ministries are signing MOUs with the Ministry of Women Affairs to deliver on specific services for women.” According to him: “The Ministry of Agriculture, for example, will work with its ICT counterpart to ensure that five million women farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs receive mobile phones to be able to access information on agro-inputs through an e-wallet scheme,” and announced that “N3bn has been set aside to be disbursed to participating MDAs as incentives for them to deliver on these targets.”

Prior to that time, however, the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina, had announced government’s plan to distribute 10 million mobile phones to smallholder male and female farmers, beginning from 2013, in equal proportion for both genders. The minister had said that the phones would carry features such as information on climatic conditions, market prices of farm produce, extension workers and how farmers can access agricultural funds. He explained that the initiative was aimed at subsidising the cost of major agricultural inputs, such as fertiliser and seeds. “By that the farmers can get information on planting seasons. We cannot do that by newspapers, we need to have something they can relate with in local languages,” he had said.

Experts have observed that five million mobile phones in the hands of women farmers will create a platform for multiple services with the overall aim of improving the economic standing of the poor farmers. It is interesting to note that the mobile money initiative that began in Africa is being exported to other continents, including the developed countries. Other countries in the Americas and Asia are preparing to launch their own mobile money services as well.

Around the world, millions of smallholders are facing effects of climate change. Extreme or erratic rains, flood and drought threaten their livelihoods. Most of the farmers work five hectares or less, often in remote areas. With a population estimated at 167 million people, 25.4 million bank accounts and over 90 million phone subscribers subscribing to mobile payment, Nigeria promises to become Africa’s biggest mobile money market. The compelling needs of millions of unbanked Nigerians are expected to drive the country’s mobile money volume to surpass Kenya’s celebrated 9.5 million M-PESA subscribers among its 39 million people. Massive use of cell phones by rural farmers can create thousands of rural jobs for some local service providers. Feedback from a group of farmers in Ondo State has shown that “they want extension to be strengthened.” By what means could that be done most easily, especially given their recognition of the fact that they need inputs and that rural road conditions need to be addressed? They have indirectly substantiated why they need phones but were not able to establish firmly the rationale because of concerns for charging their batteries. Their problem actually presents an opportunity in the sense that a business can be spawned from this gap they have identified.

If road access is a problem and farmers see their need for inputs, it means they are better off with phones that save them time, reduce their trouble and uncertainty and remove the risks of making needless trips. Some extension services can be personalised and delivered on phones. This will make it easier to reach more beneficiaries, especially as there is a prevailing problem of low ratio of extension officers to farmers. A few will be able to serve more farmers, overcoming the logistic barriers and making a better use of time and other key resources, yet achieving more in agricultural productivity.

• Dr. Oyeleye is media aide to the Honourable Minister of Agriculture

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