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Leaving no farmer behind this wet season

As the wet season approaches, farmers, agribusinesses and serious governments are gearing up to best face the rainy season. It is that time of the…

As the wet season approaches, farmers, agribusinesses and serious governments are gearing up to best face the rainy season. It is that time of the year when we ask the question, which has now become perennial; Is it possible to reach every single Nigerian farmer when they are spread out across a vast and often remote, insecure country? Many experts like the Late Sam Dryden of Imperial College see a precedent in the global polio eradication initiative which basically required that vaccinators reach virtually every child in Nigeria, and even the entire continent to effectively eradicate the polio disease. Interestingly, Nigeria was the last country to stop transmission of the virus, and new technologies, such as high-resolution satellite imagery coupled with global positioning systems, helped them get the job done. Obviously the goal of eradication and the goal of ongoing two-way communication about agricultural systems are different, but the expertise does exist to reach and serve the poorest citizens, if the political will is in place.

Farmers who currently operate in an informal system may be wary of formalising their existence, which would make it easier for their governments to tax them. This is only a problem if we fail to make the value proposition clear. In Nigeria, we have yet again set the example and done something remarkable with Dr Adesina’s e-wallet system which uses unique identifiers in the GES programme. The government was able to assign identifiers to millions of farmers by using e-wallet to deliver fertiliser subsidies. This means that If we can prove to farmers that these systems give them something they actually want, they will participate. This programme is now reborn as the National Agricultural Growth Scheme and Agro Pocket (NAGS&AP). This scheme should have by now picked up in readying the systems and processes for a successful 2022 rainy season.

Nevertheless, identifying farmers through the National Identity platform and actually using it across multiple areas of social and economic services is essential. The next set of practical considerations have to do with how systems are set up. Privacy is a major concern. We have to build systems that can identify individuals for the purposes of collecting and analysing data but can also let them remain anonymous.

The details of who gets identified and how also matter. For example, it is not altogether clear whether identifiers should tie to the household or to the individual. Ideally, they would tie to both. Men and women within a household often have distinct plots of land. For the sake of accuracy, the best systems would identify the man and the woman as individuals and would know they make up one household and establish which plots correspond to which ID.

Mr Dryden, as former Director of Agricultural Development, suggests that Data interoperability is another priority. We need to make sure that, as our systems mature, we can incorporate data from all sorts of sources to get a more complete picture of the lives of smallholder farmers. He argues that the amount of information companies are able to collect on us is astounding, but they use it for their own proprietary purposes. Whereas companies need to be able to compete, in agriculture there is a vast pre-competitive space where sharing information widens opportunities for everyone. That is why this work cannot be done by private companies alone. They will necessarily focus on the farmers they believe can improve their bottom line. To achieve the total democratisation of data, we must engage governments in the effort.

The third practical consideration is data quality. The mere existence of a farmer identifier does not generate high-quality data. For that, we need adequate investment and political will. Farmers will benefit the most if we can link up as much data as possible using spatial data infrastructure and unique identifiers. This is currently being undertaken in a few states in some Asian countries, but much remains to be done to realise the full potential in serving citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

One of the benefits of unique identifiers is that they work without requiring too much of anyone participating in the process. Smallholder farmers live in an informal world. Governments, businesses, and international institutions work in a highly formalised world. With digital technology, we can generate a two-way conversation without having to worry about where one world ends and another begins. Smallholder farmers already increasingly rely on their cell phones. Unique identifiers will simply make it possible to capture more of the details of their lives. The formal sector can keep collecting data and analysing it in the way it always has, except the data quality will be significantly better.

Over time, these two contexts, formal and informal, may well merge. When smallholder farmers see opportunities to integrate into the more formal system, they may choose to do so. But the process will be a response to actual incentives instead of demands that smallholders change the way they live.

African leaders are thinking in bold ways about the future of their agricultural systems. To realise their vision, they will need to build digital infrastructure that can deliver on the promise of the information age. If our leaders are serious about the potential of the millions of smallholder farmers in the country, the first building block will be unique identifiers for every single farmer. We have a formidable Digital Identity strategy and drive for National Identification, coupled with a vibrant Digital Economy policy and a fresh Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development with a clear intent on getting it right. For our agricultural systems to develop, Nigeria must therefore rise to this occasion and not only identify its real farmers, but leave none of them behind. The National Agricultural Growth Scheme and Agro Pocket (NAGS&AP) must be implemented efficiently and quickly in order to bring these benefits to the common farmer.

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