New Nation, New Start

By Jesse Chang

As the excitement from Saturday’s Independence Day celebration for South Sudan winds down, the new nation faces many challenges. Poverty and hunger – the majority of South Sudanese people live on less than a dollar a day – along with a lack of education, security and infrastructure have stunted the region’s development. A civil war between the North and South dating back to 1955 has taken its toll on the Sudanese. Nearly 40 percent of the population requires food aid to survive, and only a quarter of the adults are literate. According to the New York Times, a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of finishing primary school and more than 10 percent of children do not make it to their fifth birthday.

A Sudanese farmer uses a tractor to prepare his land for agriculture at the banks of River Nile in Khartoum. (Photo Credit: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)

But there is some good news. South Sudan has immense agricultural potential, of which the vast majority remains untapped. A whopping 80 percent of its total land is arable, in comparison to about 45% for the rest Sub-Saharan Africa. This is in thanks to high rainfalls and the tributaries of the Nile River promoting the growth of trees, shrubs and grasses that keep the soil fertile. Based on a recent satellite land cover survey, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calculates that only 4.5 percent of the available land is currently under cultivation.

“South Sudan is enormously rich in terms of natural resources, and with 95 percent of the population dependent on them for survival, it has huge potential for sustainable growth through agriculture” says George Okech, head of the South Sudan FAO office.

Lack of infrastructure – including roads, storage systems, water, and electricity – has prevented the growth of the agricultural sector. Last year, the agricultural sector received only 1 percent of the national budget, as national security expenditures funding the military put a drain on the country’s resources.

Fortunately, the government has recognized the enormous potential in agriculture and has begun to adopt key strategies to help achieve its full potential. They have already created a draft policy to manage the private sector’s use of pesticides, fertilizers, horticulture and training services. There are also plans to organize international shows to promote agriculture, where farmers would learn about opportunities and exchange ideas. Finally, $10 million has been set aside to increase farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as high-yield seeds, improved packaging, and banking and financial services. Government of South Sudan (GoSS) official, Pagan Amum, vowed to do his best to develop the sector, stating, “there is going to be rationalization in all aspects of expenditure to create funds for the development of our agriculture.”

International organizations are also working in South Sudan to help develop their agricultural sector. In May of 2010, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged $55 million over five years to “increase farm productivity, trade, and the capacity of people engaged in the agricultural sector in Southern Sudan” by focusing on road building and increasing smallholder production of staple crops such as maize and sorghum. A key initiative is the construction of a road from the capitol Juba, to the southern border with Uganda which will bring down the cost of importing goods. Also, the FAO currently manages a $61 million emergency rehabilitation program which is assisting hundreds of thousands of returnees to get back into the agriculture sector after fleeing from the conflict. Additionally, a $50 million Interim Assistance Plan is in the works that will create more agricultural offices, prevent conflict over water resources, and develop the livestock sector.

South Sudan’s agricultural potential will not be realized overnight. The economy is still almost completely dependent on petroleum production, which accounts for 98 percent of government revenue. And continued conflict, either external with Sudan or internal amongst historically rival tribes implies that less resources will be devoted to the agricultural sector. South Sudan has the capability to feed not just itself but all of East Africa. According to South Sudan citizen Elizabeth Kadai, “it’s extremely expensive, this food that is imported from neighboring countries. If it was grown locally here and prices would decrease, then life would really be OK here.”

What do you think are the most important steps for the GoSS to take if South Sudan is to effectively make the transition from an oil-based to agricultural-based economy? Tell us in the comments!

Jesse Chang is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project

To read more about agriculture in Sudan, see: USAID Wants to Jumpstart Agriculture in Southern Sudan, Where Cultivation Meets Conflict: Farming in Sudan’s War-torn Darfur Region, Innovation of the Week: Getting to the Market, and Innovation of the Week: Water Harvesting.

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