Many rural dwellers including farmers on the fringes of Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, are paying steep prices as Nigeria’s booming digital economy leaves them behind.
Farmer Musa Yakubu rushed home with his climbing rope slung across his shoulders and an axe in his hand, to attend to an emergency on a wet Saturday afternoon in September.
Mr Yakubu, a 34-year-old farmer at Saimami, a village in Kuje area council of Nigeria’s capital city Abuja, had to cut short his farm work for that day, after his wife, Mariam, suddenly appeared on the farmland with a message of a relapse of his mother’s condition at the General Hospital in Rubochi, a neighbouring village.
“I wished I could send money through online banking to my sister at Rubochi General Hospital. They only needed some money for my mother’s treatment. But since there were no mobile telephone network services here, I had to be physically present to provide cash,” Mr Yakubu told PREMIUM TIMES in his native Gbagyi dialect after returning from his farm.
In February, the family was thrown into penury following Nigeria’s currency redesign policy which led to the mopping up of the highest denomination of naira notes from circulation. The government gave various reasons for the policy including the shift towards a cashless policy.
“We could not sell our palm fruits and perishable produce like tomatoes and spinach, because buyers only had electronic means of payment,” Mr Yakubu recalled how the cash crunch impacted his community.
Compelled by the crisis, Mr Yakubu embraced an e-payment method through a third party’s bank account at Rubochi but it was a disaster.
“After the online transfer was made to a Point of Sale (POS) vendor at Rubochi, he claimed the transaction was unsuccessful but the buyer of my palm fruits had left,” Mr Yakubu lamented.
His story highlights how many rural dwellers including farmers living in the outskirts of Nigeria’s seat of power are paying steep prices for being left behind by Nigeria’s booming digital economy due to poor mobile telephony services.
Saimami lies inwards from Abaji on the Abuja-Lokoja Expressway; a three-hour journey from the Aso Rock Villa, the official residence of Nigeria’s President.
Saimami’s mountainous topography offers a breathtaking scenery of an ideal rural setting for agricultural enterprises to thrive, but the absence of social amenities – electricity, potable water and motorable roads – compounds the deficit in digital public infrastructure like mobile telephone network services.
As a result of the cash crunch, Mr Yakubu’s wife lost her firewood business which was a source of major support for the family.
“Buyers used to come to Saimami from neighbouring towns in Kogi State to purchase firewood from me with cash, but when the naira problem started, they stopped coming,” Mariam said as she recalled how her N50,000 ($50) worth business crumbled.
Rural communities, enclaves of victims of Nigeria’s cashless economy drive
While the Nigeria government rode on the back of the cash crunch to push its shift to a cashless economy, the Yakubus, a family of five, are a symbol of many rural dwellers whose means of livelihood were upended by it.
Nigeria’s quest to redesign high-denomination currency in Africa’s largest economy and reduce money supply helped remove N2.3 trillion from circulation between October 2022 and February 2023, according to figures from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Quantifying the monetary loss occasioned by the cash crunch, a Lagos-based organisation, Centre for the Promotion of Private Enterprise, estimated that the Nigerian economy lost around N20 trillion, a development that underscores the plight of Saimami residents.
In a report issued in March, Muda Yusuf, the head of the organisation, noted that “Millions of citizens have slipped into penury and destitution as a result of the disruptions and tribulations perpetrated by the currency redesign policy, especially the mopping up of over 70 per cent of cash in the economy.”
Unarguably, the scarcity in cash pushed many Nigerians into signing up to mobile banking transactions which accelerated to their highest level ever in March, jumping year on year by more than five times to 183.7 million, according to statistics from the Nigerian Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS). That compares to the 108.1 million transactions reported for January.
The NIBSS is owned by all licensed deposit money banks in Nigeria and the CBN.
However, the lack of mobile telephony servicesin many rural communittes meant thousands of people could not conduct mobile banking.
At Munu, another rural community in Abuja, Lazarus Yunana, a 26-year-old farmer, bears the brunt of non-availability of mobile network services that are needed for mobile banking transactions.
Although the cash crunch has since ended after the Supreme Court ordered its reversal in March, Mr Yunana said many buyers of his farm produce now prefer electronic bank transfer channels like the POS, which is rampant in many rural settlements due to absence of banks
“One needs a mobile telephone network to be able to engage in (electronic) money transfers, but we don’t have network connectivity in Munu,” he said.
According to the central bank, electronic banking transactions more than doubled between October 2022, the month the CBN first announced its currency redesign plan, and the end of February 2023.
In concrete terms, mobile banking transactions increased from N1.1 trillion to N2.6trillion in just one year. The volume and value of transactions executed through POS terminals reached their peak in February, just as the number of POS terminals deployed across the country was at its record high during the month.
“The cash crisis would definitely reaffirm the need for everyone to register on a digital platform and increase financial inclusion in the rural areas,” Babatunde Obrimah, the CEO, FinTech Association of Nigeria, told PREMIUM TIMES in an earlier report.
The traffic rate on the platforms of organisations under FinTech Association of Nigeria swelled more than fourfold between the start of the cash crunch and the third week of February, 2023.
But many Nigerians in the hinterlands are not benefitting from e-banking due to inadequate broadband penetration.
Riding on a motorcycle from Abaji to the hilly Saimami community for an hour revealed its untarred road dotted, on one side, with electric poles and sagging cables which have not provided electricity for close to a decade.
Apart from their poor access to social amenities, Mr Yakubu said, “Saimami inhabitants are deprived of government opportunities in terms of agricultural loans and financial inclusion.”
Referencing the Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP), a Nigerian government initiative aimed at achieving self-sufficiency in production of rice and some other major food items, Mr Yakubu said he could not enroll for the N55 billion scheme.
“Registering for the ABP required a bank account. But we don’t have bank accounts because there is no bank in our locality, so we could not benefit from any of such opportunities.”
A previous investigation by tis newspaper detailed how the farmers programme faltered owing to disbursement of loans to some “farmers” outside the financial system.
Mr Yakubu further said the community was trapped during the naira redesign policy of the government which occasioned hardships for many Nigerians.
“Produce buyers who used to pay in cash for goods such as maize, guinea corn and cassava, were only able to make electronic bank transfers. That was not possible at Saimami and other adjoining communities like Gyana, Fazza and Gbamfa, because of poor mobile network,” he said.
Although the currency redesign policy brought a high number of unbanked Nigerians into the digital banking system, many rural dwellers were still left out due to a lack mobile network services.
Poor mobile services frustrate distress calls
Aside from the challenges of poor mobile telephony services militating against financial inclusion for rural communities, insecurity renders another dimension to the issue.
At sunset on 5 August at Munu in Abuja, gunmen snatched Moses Yakubu from among a trio of farmers who were returning from the market.
Mr Yakubu, 75, could not run fast owing to old age but his co-travellers – Danjuma Saidu, 23; and Lazarus Yunana, 26 – clambered up the steep hill where the hoodlums had waylaid them, before vanishing through shrubs into the surrounding forests.
“After I hid myself in the woods, I tried to phone our vigilante leader about Moses Yakubu’s kidnap but there was no mobile network on my phone,” Mr Yunana narrated the challenges with mobile telephony in Munu and surrounding communities.
Munu’s beautiful scenery with lush vegetation attracts herders and their cattle, a factor that has contributed to the insecurity in the area.
The residents’ plights concerning infrastructural deficit is compounded by worsening insecurity. Kidnapping and banditry have ravaged rural communities and satellite towns in Abuja.
“Aside from kidnappers who regularly strike in the community, when herders and their cows destroy our crops, it’s impossible to phone the police for intervention due to lack of mobile network,” Mr Yunana said.
The vigilante leader at Munu, Paul Commander, a farmer, corroborated Mr Yunana’s concerns.
“We can’t make distress calls to the police whenever we are faced with problems like kidnapping of our community members and herdsman invasion,” Mr Commander said.
“It took us 48 hours of combing the bushes before we rescued Moses Yakubu from his abductors,” the vigilante leader said in his native Gbagi dialect.
Daniel Jesse, a 28-year-old farmer, said mobile telephony services is now an integral part of a digitalised world economy, therefore their absence deprives Munu residents of modernism.
“A large herd of cattle was unleashed on my cassava farm in August, but I could not get the herders arrested because I was alone and there was no mobile telephone network to phone the vigilante for help,” Mr Jesse who works as a local pastor said.
Broader issues of broadband penetration in rural Nigeria
Residents of Munu, Saimami, Gwargwada and Yebu communities in Kuje and Kwali local council areas of Abuja, are among the 30 million Nigerians without Internet connectivity as of October, 2022, according to data from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), which regulates the sector.
Umar Danbatta, the former Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC, blamed lack of Internet access on infrastructure deficits.
According to data from the NCC, as of July 2022, broadband penetration in Nigeria only reached 44.5 per cent – less than half of the country’s 200 million population. But voice calls and data connectivity remain abysmally poor in rural Abuja communities as a result of the inadequacies in spectrum expansion.
In September, PREMIUM TIMES reported how the National Rural Telephony Project (NRTP), started in 2002 and designed to ensure that rural communities were not left out of the telecommunication development, was abandoned.In Abuja, telecommunications companies are having a hard time siting Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) that would have boosted mobile network services in rural areas like Munu, Saimami Yebu, and satellite towns.
The Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) said the deficit in mobile telephony infrastructure deployment in some parts of Abuja is caused by the refusal of development control regulators to grant approvals to mobile network service providers to site Base Transceiver Stations (BTS).
Gbolahan Awonuga, who leads ALTON, told PREMIUM TIMES that the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) in Abuja refuses to grant approvals to telecoms service providers for siting of BTS.
Saddled with the responsibility of running the Nigerian capital, the FCTA has the mandate to “build and administer Abuja in compliance with its master plan.”
But FCTA’s refusal to issue approvals for the siting of BTS to telecoms firms is at variance with government’s avowal to “respond to the needs of all residents…” of Abuja.
The spokesperson for NCC, Reuben Muoka, corroborated Mr Awonuga’s concerns in an interview with this newspaper.
Mr Muoka said the FCTA believes erecting BTS would deface Abuja’s master plan.
“Siting of Base Transceiver Stations in Abuja has been an issue, because the city does not have high-rise buildings where telecom operators could mount their equipment,” Mr Muoka explained.
Experts said not even co-location of telecommunications facilities has been able to resolve the digital infrastructure issues regarding mounting of physical assets in Abuja.
“What telecoms operators are doing is to optimise whatever digital infrastructure they have by renting BTS that are mounted on a particular physical asset, a development called ‘co-location,” Mr Muoka explained how the issue is being tackled.
“In terms of the concept of co-location, a company builds infrastructure which all the telecom companies rent. It was even tougher when MTN Nigeria, Airtel Nigeria and Glo Nigeria had to look for their individual sites,” Mr Muoka noted.
He further explained that Abuja’s growing human population estimated at 2.5 million puts constraints on BTS.
Bordered by four states – Niger, Kogi, Kaduna and Nasarawa – the FCT as Nigeria’s seat of power continues to witness influx of people partly due to the insecurity in many northern states.
“Abuja is still not free like other locations. As the population is increasing, that is how the constraints of more base stations will be felt,” the NCC spokesperson said of the need to expand mobile telecoms services in the city.
Despite the challenges, the regulatory authorities boast that Nigeria’s active mobile subscriptions has reached 220.7 million as of August 2023.
This is up by about 200,000 subscriptions from the 220.5 million recorded in the preceding month of July, as announced by the NCC.
But Mr Awonuga was optimistic that the new Minister of FCT, Nyesom Wike, would address the issues.
Anthony Ogunleye, the director of press at Mr Wike’s office, promised to offer an explanation for the continued deprivation of telecoms operators approvals to mount BTS and other digital assets.
But after a week of repeated calls and text messages to his phone for comments, Mr Ogunleye has yet to get back to this reporter.