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Questions About Who Really Gets the Hookup as Nigeria Gives 10 Million Mobile Phones to Farmers

BY Julia Wetherell | Thursday, January 31 2013

Reports this month that the Nigerian government will be distributing 10 million mobile phones to farmers have many wondering what the return on investment will be for the rest of the country.

Critics of the plan say its economic benefits could be shaky in Nigeria. Global Voices cites Kikiowo Ileowo, a tax consultant and Internet publisher, who wants to know who these farmers are. If they're rural subsistence farmers, he writes, they may already have phones — as the government is already communicating with farmers by SMS. If they're not, then they may be working on a mechanized commercial farm — in which case it would still be unclear why they needed a phone.

Agricultural minister Dr. Akinwumi Adesima claimed earlier this month that the proliferation of mobile phones has already empowered a great number of Nigerians who rely on subsistence farming to survive. An e-wallet initiative launched last spring allowed farmers to pay for seeds and fertilizer electronically, he said, making it harder for middlemen to skim cash off the top. The e-wallet currently has 4.2 million registered users, and has become a source of valuable data for policymakers, he said.

“For the first time ever, we can now base policy decisions on data, not guess work,” Adesima said last week in an editorial from Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper.

An editorial from Nigeria’s Sun News, also cited by Global Voices, again argues that inexpensive mobile phone technology is already in the hands of many small farmers. What the country really needs, the Sun says, is infrastructural change:

This entire phone scheme appears more designed to facilitate billion naira [Nigerian dollar] contracts for phone suppliers, than increased food production in the country…The farmers in the rural areas can be educated on how to improve their farming methods through traditional communication channels and the radio. Farmers need good roads to evacuate their produce to the markets.

The need for new infrastructure might extend to wireless networks as well. A recent report found that the growth in number of mobile subscriptions has slowed in the country while coverage areas leave much to be desired and service is poor, partly thanks to vandalism, attacks on telco hardware, and right-of-way disputes with local authorities that make it difficult to run fiber to where it needs to be.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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