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Realizing South Sudan's food potential

South Sudan, May 25, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps is helping increase agricultural knowledge, food security and sustainability in Sudan. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

"Agriculture is the only way of eradicating poverty in South Sudan." — Kawac Deng Kawac, Awiel East commissioner in address to the Agriculture Trade fair organized by Mercy Corps

Many people are aware of the oil wealth in South Sudan but it is less well known that my soon-to-be-independent country is incredibly fertile with huge agricultural potential. Yet many of the population suffer from constant food insecurity as the legacy of civil war leaves few people with the knowledge to engage in anything more than low level subsistence farming.

Sudan imports large amounts of goods from Kenya and Uganda, but has the potential to be a regional breadbasket and — as the commissioner noted above — can alleviate poverty in the process.

As part of the Mercy Corps food security program that I work on, we recently organized a trade fair in the border state of Northern Bhar el Ghazal. Its aim was to contribute to farmer groups' marketing and agricultural development of the county. Farmers had the opportunity to sell their products from previous harvests and at the same time as acquiring or purchasing seeds, tools and other farming inputs for the upcoming planting season. The fair was also intended to create an avenue where farmers, producers, input dealers, produce buyers and processors share their knowledge, experiences and ideas in terms of success, challenges and lessons learnt in farming.

More than 280 participants turned up and there was widespread recognition that agricultural development must be prioritized in South Sudan as a whole — and in Northern Bhar el Ghazal in particular — in order to overcome the huge levels of poverty. Decades of civil war have left many with only the knowledge for subsistence farming and, in recent months, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have returned from the North and often possess even less knowledge of agriculture but have no alternative source of income.

The county commissioner — a senior political figure in the area — addressed the crowd and emphasized “the numerous challenges facing agriculture in South Sudan are lack of modern technology to enhance mechanize farming, poor infrastructure network on the ground, lack of imported technology to replace traditional ways of cultivation like adopting tractors, ox ploughs extraction and promotions as well as taking into consideration of training those useless donkey roaming around idle to plough this fertile land.”

The lack of agricultural knowledge was highlighted by the fact that very little purchasing actually took place, despite a wide range of seeds and tools being available. Many participants were wary of investing their limited resources into seeds and tools that they did not know how to utilize. Despite this, the fair was successful in showcasing the types of goods available to farmers in the area, with strong encouragement from local government. Many farmers showed interest in learning how to use various tools, and so Mercy Corps can build on this interest so that, at next year's fair, farmers feel ready to invest in new methods to improve their food security.

There is a large dependence on international non-governmental organizations like Mercy Corps to supply seeds. All returnees who came from Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, as well as from outside the country are heavily dependent on food distributions from World Food Programme — but these rations last only three months, in order to facilitate their resettlement. When this ends, there is a fear that the level of food productivity and affordability will further deteriorate, resulting in even greater food insecurity and poverty.

From my personal point of view, there are no quick solutions to this rampant poverty — the focus needs to be on ways to improve the skills of farmers and increase their confidence in utilizing basic technology to increase productivity. I am proud that Mercy Corps, together with the government, is addressing such issues so as to reverse the trend of food insecurity and poverty.