Rebuilding, Brick by Brick

South Sudan

July 18, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Diew Ajak is capitalizing on southern Sudan's building boom. Photo: Jackson Mwanzo/Mercy Corps

Renk, Southern Sudan — While walking along the emaciated Nile River at the height of last year's dry season, unemployed banker Diew Ajak encountered a curiously constructed brick. The light-orange material had unusual dimensions and a sturdy composition that made it unlike anything he'd seen being used to construct the shops, government buildings and apartments currently sprouting from southern Sudan's impervious clay.

Construction had boomed since the 2005 accord that brought an official end to Africa's longest-running civil war, and Diew saw opportunity in the brick he'd stumbled across. He asked his elders about the mysterious block. As it turned out, a number remembered that under British rule, laborers churned out bricks along the river to take advantage of the silt deposited by the annual river swells.

Diew began a campaign to revive the lost trade, and in less than a year led a profitable brickmaking enterprise fueled by the energy of more than four dozen partners and a vital loan from Mercy Corps. It's one of several new wealth-generating initiatives, ranging from portable grain mills to workshops for aspiring welders, which are today helping revitalize southern Sudan's war-shattered economy and enabling more of its former residents to return.

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Renk is a hot, flat and sparsely populated place of mostly mud-and-grass huts near the border that separates northern and southern Sudan. The larger region is known as the Northern Upper Nile. It encompasses five counties assigned to the Government of South Sudan under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Before that pact ended two decades of civil war, the Northern Upper Nile bore the full brunt of the fighting, mainly due to the presence of oil within its boundaries. It was also considered strategic for both sides because of its easy accessibility by road from Khartoum, its mixed-race population and its abundance of arable land.

The rifle fights, bombings and gunship fire led entire villages to flee to neighboring countries, or urban centers like Renk, which were considered the only safe havens from violence. But today the dynamics are reversed: people are flooding back into the region, and construction of new buildings has increased markedly.

Diew, a former agricultural banker laid off two years earlier, thought he could capitalize on this growth by making bricks closer to construction sites. Most of the Northern Upper Nile's soil is unfit for brickmaking; its muddy soil lacks adhesiveness, and cracks easily when dry. As a result, builders in the northern Upper Nile must import their bricks at a high price: 22 Sudanese Dinars a brick (about 11 U.S. cents), after transport costs are figured in.

Diew needed a loan of about US$3,000 to get his brickmaking business off the ground; his 52 business partners — mostly small-scale farmers and builders looking for another source of income — contributed another $1,200 or so worth of labor, materials and cash. But financing proved difficult; there are no local banks or moneylenders to speak of.

Mercy Corps, in partnership with local organizations, stepped in to fill the void. Its community-development program in the region, dubbed the Northern Upper Nile Rehabilitation and Reintegration Program, or NUNRRP, offers training to organizations with ideas to create jobs and fill niches in the growing economy. Many of the returnees to this area arrive destitute; creating economic opportunities for this growing population is vital to a viable and peaceful state.

"People are resettling here in large numbers, and there's significant concern about how these people will find jobs, support themselves economically, and not overtax the land and water resources," says David Brigham, Mercy Corps' country director for northern Sudan. "At the same time, it presents a historic opportunity for communities to move forward with peace and reconciliation. So we're trying to give them what they need to rebuild."

In that sense, Diew's group is aptly named: Eimar is an Arabic word that means "rebuilding." It is one of seven local groups that are receiving Mercy Corps support for various economic projects. They range from a tiny generator-powered electrical utility to welding workshops for people with disabilities to a portable grinding-mill service catering to cereal growers in far-flung villages. (Next year, Mercy Corps plans to expand NUNRRP to two other border towns, Melut and Maaban, which are experiencing similar population dynamics.) Members of these groups received five days of basic management workshops, followed by more in-depth training on topics such as proposal writing and bookkeeping.

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Diew says the March 2006 training helped him reorganize members of his cooperative — and convince them they could successfully launch their brickmaking enterprise. In fact, Diew's idea qualified for a Mercy Corps loan, which were available to fund innovative proposals that filled gaps in the local economy. The 462,000 Sudanese Dinar (roughly US$2,200) loan — disbursed through a village development committee formed by the agency — paid for brickmaking frames, a water pump, hoes and spades, and other equipment.

Soon after, the group began making bricks. The cost per-brick proved to be economical: approximately 10 Sudanese Dinars, or about five U.S. cents. But Eimar's first batch of bricks, completed this past March, disappointed its potential customers: they failed to pass muster with local contractors. Diew adjusted his brickmaking frames and methods, and hired experienced brickmakers from a bigger town four hours away by car into northern Sudan. His second lot passed the quality test last month.

In short order, Diew and his partners racked up 800,000 Sudanese Dinars in profits — nearly US$4,000, a mighty haul considering the average family lives on about US$5 a day. They are making payments on their loan with ease, and the interest payments are already returning to the community as loan capital for new enterprises.

The profits are also recirculating to members of Eimar. The cooperative elected to spend part of the earnings on equipment and tools for members to start their own small construction businesses. These enterprising Sudanese are now literally building a future for their community, brick by brick, after decades of despair.