Agok, southern Sudan — Before April of this year, whatever hustle and bustle existed in this lightly populated farming town typically ceased after sunset. Conventional electrical service is non-existent in South Sudan, one of the least developed places on earth, and stalls in the unlit market were shuttered by 7 p.m.
But since Mercy Corps helped install a generator in Agok's market, the largest for miles in any direction, a growing number of glowing stalls have consistently drawn a bevy of late-night shoppers, who come in search of everything from a cold soda to flip-flops to a sack of grain. And as a result, the economic prospects of market traders like Kuol Nyual have never looked brighter.
Five years ago, with Sudan's civil war still taking its toll on border communities such as this one, Nyual was the first tradesperson to set up shop under the shade of a row of spindly trees in the dusty center of town. Back then, he mostly tried to swap his sorghum harvest for sugar and other raw goods. Today, however, he does a brisk business in groceries and refrigerated drinks, and has been joined by entrepreneurs who've opened pharmacies, clothing shops, even a restaurant that boasts a television set.
"Now," Nyual says from inside one of his two thatched stalls, "it's a true market."
As part of its efforts to increase economic opportunities for repatriated residents of southern Sudan, Mercy Corps spent $10,000 on the generator that powers the lights, coolers and other appliances in each market stall. Traders keep the electricity flowing by joining an electricity committee that collects a monthly fee of 1500 Sudanese Dinars, or about $7.50, for fuel and maintenance. Nyual, the committee's elected chair, says the number of vendors paying into the pot has more than doubled since the outset, from 30 to 65.
Mercy Corps is helping the market in other ways, too, such as by organizing garbage pick-ups and offering classes in inventory-management and accounting. It's all part of the agency's TARGET program, a USAID-funded initiative that addresses the food and livelihood needs of more than 150,000 returnees to this region of South Sudan.
As part of that program, which the agency administers in partnership with two local organizations, Mercy Corps has been helping increase agricultural productivity and looking for ways to provide economic opportunities for residents. Most families earn income from selling sorghum, onions and other produce, and need vibrant, well-functioning markets in which to trade. Well-stocked markets are also vital in the campaign to lure people back to southern Sudan after last year's Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended one of the longest and deadliest conflicts of the last 50 years.
The agreement precipitated a continuing surge of returnees to the south — thousands each month, according to some estimates. That is a welcome change for Nyual, who fled north during the war but returned here five years ago. "When I first came back, there was hardly anyone here," he says. "There wasn't anybody buying anything; there were no goods moving at all."
"Everyone was away, hiding during the war," adds Monyluok Mayol, chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce, who left in 1984. "Now people are coming from a long way away just to do business here in Agok."
Nyual says he and his fellow stall owners are hoping for more market improvements, such as a slaughtering slab to ensure meat is butchered hygienically and a microcredit program to help them invest in their business. They are girding for more customers — and more opportunity.
"This market has helped boost people's confidence in their decision to return home," says Mayol. "I believe that slowly, everyone will return, and this area will thrive."