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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ICT as tool for rural agric development in Nigeria

Taking advantage of rapidly increasing mobile phone penetration in the country, could be of a business model even for rural farmers, writes REMMY NWEKE.

TRAVELING from the city of Lagos to the Eastern part of Nigeria to see relatives during one of the major festivals called ‘Onwu-Ano’ which some other climes within the heart of Eastern States call ‘New Yam festival,’ Ejiofor Onuoma had gone to see an Aunt, Mama Chibuzor after several years, at a town called Awba-Ofemili in Awka-North Local government area of Anambra State.

Interestingly as soon as Ejiofor entered the family house, the Aunt’s mobile phone was buzzing somewhere in the room. Mama Chibuzor left every other thing including the warm greeting she was offering Ejiofor to scout for the handset, which Chibuzor had bought for her since their father died in conjunction with another sibling, Ulochi, who is now married to a businessman trading at Onitsha.

After spending some minutes responding to the call, invariably a customer from Awka, the capital city of Anambra, which is less than 200 kilometers away; the borne of the discussion was on how Mama Chibuzor could send some bags of rice to the client.

According to her, Rice dealers at Awka have developed another means of engaging local rice farmers in order to have good end product from the Rice Mills, especially at a good price.

She explained that even those of them who are Rice farmers turned dealers; no longer have to travel to Awka to discuss or negotiate who to sell their bags of rice to, but simply send the public cum commercial transporters plying between Awba-Ofemili and Eke-Awka, where the garage is with the bags of finished rice produce when ready and ask that they deposit same to their customers at the other end of the trade line in Awka, whereas following up through the mobile phones.

The follow up via mobile phones, Mama Chibuzor said, entails putting a call through to the driver to know when he gets to Awka, noting that if such calls are not answered, then it implies that the driver is either still driving and by implication has not reached his destination.

Alternatively, she said that on getting to Awka garage, the driver usually beeps the farmer-turn-seller for the person to call back and give further directive on how to dispose the bags of rice. And in a situation where the customer is already waiting at the garage, such a person may offer to speak with the seller to confirm via the mobile phone that he or she is on ground to take possession of the bags of rice.

Based on the agreement that may have been reached, she said, the driver is directed to collect the price money on the sellers behalf for onward delivery at Awba-Ofemili on return later in the day.

In some cases, Mama Chibuzor said that they often request such drivers whom she tagged very friendly to use some of the returns made from the rice sold to buy things needed for the family and even agricultural tools and return with the balance, of course after deducting their transportation fare for conveying the bags of rice to Awka.

She also said that a bag of rice cost between N200 and N300, that is about $1.3 cents upward, to be conveyed to Awka, while its sold for between N3000 and N5000, about $20 and above; depending on how bright the outcome of the milling is or looks.

Then entered Jonah Mbanefo, who is popularly known in Awba-Ofemili as Osuofia, which means ‘one who delights in clearing tick bushes’ and of course tills the land, arguing that one cannot answer ‘Osuofia’ without being a renowned farmer.

When asked how business, especially with the rice season since everyone in town seems to be pre-occupied with the festival, Jonah began by asserting that it’s all fine, at least, they are surviving, but was quick to add that the kind of chemicals now available in the market have become bane of successful rice farmers in the town.

As said by him, before now chemicals for weeding grasses and in other instances bushes where applicable, have sky-rocketed. This, in addition to being adulterated, he said, involves that if you are to use a tin of chemicals to clear what is known in the local parlance at Awba-Ofemili as ‘one-chain,’ that is, a chain is Nine arm-measured ruler by 11 times.

He pointed out that clearing of weeds, shrubs, poison oak and Ivy, as well as other nuisance plants, during clearing, especially for farming purposes, he engages cartons of chemicals which he could not remember immediately but knows it when he visit shops or market to make purchase. The carton of chemical, he said, comes in two versions; one which contains six bottles and another 12. Stressing that in the cartons the cost price per bottle is estimated at N1,000, that is about $6.4 cents, but in the open market, Jonah said, a bottle of the chemical cost about N1,800, that is $12.

Jonah equally lamented that nowadays, those importing the chemicals are not living up to expectation as most of which are adulterated, forcing his likes to now buy more of these chemicals for a small piece of farm land.

However, he said that his respite comes from the fact that he now has a customer at Awka capital city, who offer non-adulterated chemicals for weeding at a higher cost, whom he contacts through his mobile phone, at least to confirm availability and price, when ready, just as he declared that the chemicals are too expensive for any local farmer.

He disclosed that the non-adulterated chemical goes for triple the cost of the adulterated, urging the government to come to their aids. Jonah said that government at all levels could intervene by purchasing these chemicals in bulk and resell at subsidized prices to farmers.

He emphasised that telephone, mostly the mobile tool has been very useful to him and other farmers in Awba-Ofemili in transacting business concerning their agricultural products, especially in the area of market pricing at Awka, which is their major market for disposing of produce.

For him, they also need a good road network to be able to convey their products to neighbouring towns and mostly Awka and Onitsha where the markets are huge among other agricultural products like cassava and yam tubers.

This time a ring tone took over the air with the popular Igba-Ijele music as Jonah dipped his hands into his trouser pocket to fetch his Nokia phone and the person at the other end identified himself as Ogbuefi Akunwata whose purpose was that the market has gone down and is not the best of times to come with a particular rice identified as ‘maths.’

He explained that his rice this year has been of extreme white therefore attracting lots of attentions at the rice mill down to the market in Awka.

Elucidating that most rice outshine one another depending on how the preparation started and ended during per boiling session, Jonah said, that at this stage farmers need to learn from one another because even if one chose to per boil for say 10 minutes, the type of wood used as firewood could change the velocity of the heats that emanate within the said 10 minutes, hence, could affect the final output of the rice or otherwise.

Additionally, he said that during the drying process before milling is important so as not to get the plenty of broken pieces of rice after milling. So, farmers must be careful at this stage too not to jeopardize the efforts made while tilling and cultivating agricultural products and in particular, rice.

Most of all, he said, one good-news is that most villagers across about six communities that made up Awba-Ofemili; it’s now a common knowledge to hear a phone ringing as one walks from Agu-enu to Umuosite, a neighbouring village with Anyamelumu and Ibute-Olo in Enugu State.

Especially rice farmers in this community, he said, could now supply organisations their products, depending on the kind of contacts they have made using what most of the residents call ‘ekwe-nti’ that’s ‘Gong for the ear’ - phone.

ITRealms Online gathered that the fact about usage of mobile phones, for instance, by rural farmers in a community like Awba-Ofemili with unaccessible roadnetwork, is that this encompasses time and cost saving.

By saving time from traveling to Awka with produce, especially rice, for instance, which could be invested in other things like the farm. Also, it is no longer in doubt that the residents of this community who take bags of rice to Awka to sale accumulate fares, one for themselves and secondly for the accompanying products, even, for the shade space where they display their bags of rice; by the local market authorities pending when buyers surface and eventually emerge the preferred bargainer. This trip to Awka usually takes a full day.

In the near future, it is expected that youths from this community will encourage mechanised farming, motivated by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), which could translate in their usage of mobile phones to access the internet and share relevant agric-information among the rural farmers.

This, in the real sense, could be a business concept awaiting optimisation for secondary school leavers, who could also offer call centre services, while sharing best farm-practice knowledge even if it means for a token, since most mobile phones in the country numbering over 43 million, have been reportedly enabled with Internet access out of over 88m subscribers.

Maybe, with special incentives through the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) Fund, the road to achieving rural integration using IT, especially for local farmers, would become a reality.

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