LCCI lambasts FG’s N60bn phones-for-farmers policy

LAGOS: The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) have lambasted the federal government over the proposed N60 billion phones-for-farmers policy saying it is a misplaced priority.

On Tuesday, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mrs. Ibukun Odusote  disclosed the federal government intends to spend N60 billion to purchase mobile phones for 10 million rural farmers across the country. She said that the fund had has already been provided and the distribution will commence in the first quarter.

Reacting to this development in an interview with Biztellers,  the Chairman, Agric sector of the LCCI and Managing Director of Bama Farm Food, Prince Wale Oyekoya, said the Federal Government’s intention would  not make any meaningful impact on the lives of the farmers.

“Imagine our Federal Government wants to give rural farmers N60b cell phone, is this what our poor farmers need now with the high interest rate of 28 per cent. This is part of corruption we are talking about; it is a way of laundering our money by the federal government. Farmers need working capital and not cell phone, who will be recharging the phones for them? Is it still the federal government that will do that?” he said.

According to him, the Nigerian farmers need a single digit interest rate on agric loans, input research and development, tractors, working capital and other amenities to excel in agriculture, adding that, Nigeria is one nation that is endowed with goodness of nature , wonderful weather, excellent soil texture and great business environment.

He urged the federal government to provide basic infrastructure that would make agricultural business venture progress and less stressful, adding that the government should invest more in farmers with a single digit interest rate on agric loans instead of giving out cell phones.

On Thursday, Minster of Agriculture, Dr. Adeshina Akinwunmi though denied that the FG was spending N60 billion to purchase the mobile phones, he however strongly defended the policy. Adesina said the Permanent Secretary of the ministry, Mrs. Ibukun Odusote, was totally misquoted on the issue as there “is no N60 Billion for phones anywhere.

The Minister said agriculture today is more knowledge-intensive and they are willing to modernize the sector, and get younger (graduate) entrepreneurs into the sector, “and we will arm them with modern information systems.

“Whether small, medium or large farmers they all need information and communication systems. Connecting to supermarkets and international markets require that farmers know and meet stringent consumer-driven grades and standards.”

He added “In today’s supply chains, the flow of information from buyers to farmers must be instant, to meet rapidly changing demands. Unless farmers have information at their finger tips, they will lose out on market opportunities.

“Our goal is to empower every farmer. No farmer will be left behind. We will reach them in their local languages and use mobile phones to trigger an information revolution which will drive an agricultural revolution.”

On why the need for cell phones, Dr. Akinwumi explained that Nigeria has 110 million cell phones, the largest in Africa, but regretted that there is a huge divide as the bulk of the phones are in urban areas.

“The rural areas are heavily excluded. For agriculture, which employs 70% of the population that means the farmers are excluded and marginalized.

“In today’s world, the most powerful tool is a mobile phone. As Minister of Agriculture, I want the entire rural space of Nigeria, and farmers, to be included, not excluded, from the advantages of mobile phone revolution.

The Phone-For-Farmers scheme is part of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) of the federal government introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture.  The goal of ATA is to add 20 million metric tones (MT)  to the domestic food supply, or 5 million MT per year, by 2015, and to create a total of 3.5 million jobs by 2015.

According to the Minister the goal of ATA is to  transform agriculture to grow food, create wealth and generate jobs. The focus is on expanding domestic food production, reducing import dependency and expanding value addition to locally produced agricultural products.

Adesina set out to eliminate decades of corruption in the fertilizer and seed sectors through radical policy reforms, reduce the role of government and expand incentives for the private sector to drive the transformation and modernization of Nigeria’s agriculture. One of such reforms brought about the Growth Enhancement Support Scheme (GESS).

The scheme which kicked off last year is a special agricultural scheme of the Federal Government aimed at delivering subsidized farm inputs to farmers and facilitates a shift from subsistence to commercial farming.

GESS is hinged on the use of technology to enhance effective distribution of various farm inputs, especially fertilizers, to farmers. This is in line with government vision of making agriculture the cornerstone of Nigeria’s economy.

With the program, Government sought to withdraw from direct fertilizer purchase and distribution, and introduce an alternative system of distribution built on the voucher system. Under the scheme, registered farmers receive e-wallet vouchers with which they can redeem fertilizer and seeds from agro dealers. The GESS is a 3-year scheme and the first cycle was implemented last year.

The scheme has been designed to encourage a private sector led market development process, ultimately geared towards improving Nigeria’s competitiveness and food security. Through this scheme, government will subsidize the costs of seeds and fertilizers for farmers by 50%, while providing soft loans to the seed and fertilizer companies and agro-dealers to sell their inputs directly to farmers and build their supply chains to get to rural areas.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Akinwumi Adesina who introduced the program, described it as the best way farmers can access the direct subsidy of agro-inputs.

He particularly explained that the introduction of allocating fertilizer and seedlings directly to benefiting farmers through electronic vouchers to their mobile phones has helped eliminate the activities of middle men who for decades have been preventing farmers in the country from enjoying such subsidy from government.

But reports from farmers  at the end of the planting season last year show  lots of complains from farmers  across the country as to their  inability to access the subsidy  or in some cases  getting the subsidized inputs after harvesting.

During a tour of five states of Taraba, Gombe, Bauchi, Nasarawa and Benue by reporters sometimes last year, farmers expres their disappointment over the scheme.

In Taraba State, the picture was not rosy. The farmers complained that they didn’t receive their two bags of fertilizer and two bags of improved seedlings in time. One of them was Hamman-Tukur Baba-Anda, a 72-year-old farmer. He said though he got his two bags of fertilizer, they came late. He lamented that if he had gotten them in time, he would have gotten about a hundred bags of maize instead of the 28 bags he got.

“We should have gotten it from January, February to April, but this time it came around June/July. May be it is from you,” Baba-Anda said.

Not all the farmers in the state got fertilizer. Out of the 75,000 farmers that got registered for the program, only 22, 000 were able to redeem their allocation, according to the state director, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Samuel Adaji.

The story was slightly different in Gombe State where the federal coordinator of the GES scheme in the state, Mallam Muhammad Umar Deba, said out of the 148,032 farmers registered for the GES program, 144,000 farmers redeemed their fertilizers.

“I couldn’t get even a single bag of fertilizer or seed,” said Malam Usman Bangu, an old farmer, in flawless English. But those who got their allocation in the state called for creation of more redemption centers as they said the ones in the state were too small to cater for them.

For Mr. Akin Balogun, the scheme had made the purchase of fertilizers more difficult and urged the government to review its implementation.

Mr. Shedrack Madlion, the Executive Director of the Admiral Environmental Care Limited, an NGO, stressed the need to put in place checks and balances to ensure success of the initiative.

Madlion observed that the e-wallet scheme had only succeeded in arousing the farmers’ interest, but its implementation had fallen short of expectation.

It was in an attempt to review its implementation and move agriculture away from development program to business that the ministry came up with a modern way of reaching the farmers using new tools like mobile phones.

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