Reporting to you from South Sudan, Africa … I am in Yambio, the capital city of Western Equatoria state. South Sudan, the 54th country in Africa and the newest country of the world, is divided into 10 states. I am assigned to three of them: the three southern states of Eastern, Central and Western Equatoria.
I am housed at a United Nations compound, the UNICEF headquarters here in Yambio. The compound is home to a collection of workers from the United Nations, and a few of us from other governments. I am the only American here.
Our quarters are spartan at best. Our meals are communal with tables inside and out on a veranda. There is an amazing mix of people here, an eclectic group of dedicated development officers, medical doctors, engineers, refugee workers and scientists.
As a group, a collection of histories of service all over the world, with challenges and disappointments coupled with idealism and positive outcomes.
As of this writing, I am four days into a seven-day visit. My role here is twofold: Engage the state Ministry of Agriculture and learn all I can about farming in Western Equatoria. The Ministry of Agriculture was established just a few months ago, when the country of South Sudan was formed on July 9, 2011.
The ministry is structured with a director general (DG) serving as a deputy minister and then six department directors. The minister (Mr. Charles Yoere) is responsible for advising the governor on policy and strategic development. The DG is more operational, handling the day-to-day activities of the ministry.
The constraints, however, are numerous. At the top of the list is a lack of adequate funding. The ministry officials receive a salary and have a title, but they generally have no operational budget. They do not own a single vehicle.
The few laptop computers they do have are given to them from non-government organizations (NGOs). There is Internet connectivity some of the time, but cellular telephone through the Zain Network is quite good.
The relationship between the central government in Juba, the capitol of South Sudan and the state governments, is a work in progress. Like any new nation, developing the long-term strategies and short-term operational objectives require deep thought and dialogue.
South Sudan is working these out as fast as they can. The U.S. government is heavily involved with guiding and mentoring these new leaders. Our new embassy in Juba, where I am based when not in travel status, is about to receive its first U.S. ambassador, Susan Page.
She has her hands full. The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, has a large presence in South Sudan. Helping fund the development so necessary here in South Sudan is USAID’s primary mission.
South Sudan and Sudan itself have been engaged in decades of two tragedies – war as the result of civil and regional military conflict and the periodic humanitarian crises rooted in food insecurity.
In fact, the issue of food security is at the top of everyone’s list here. Much of the food consumed here is imported from Uganda and Kenya, at least into the urban areas. In the rural areas where farmers are growing maize, peanuts, cassava and vegetables, the farming is largely subsistence.
Coupled with food security are South Sudan’s relationship with its neighbors, the physical constraints of poor roads and lack of transport trucks, the difficulty of increasing crop yields and the lack of harvesting and storage capacity. The entire agriculture industry here is local; the efforts at marketing local foodstuffs to some distant town or city are yet to be worked out.
There are multiple root causes of food insecurity here in South Sudan and, indeed, these are common in much of Africa. At the farm and field level, farmers here report land clearing is difficult.
The Equatorias are rain-fed, so there is little or no need for irrigation here. The rainfall period is April through October, with 1,000 to 1,400 millimeters of rainfall (38 to 55 inches). This is a tropical environment (just a few degrees north of the Equator), so there is lush vegetation.
Any additional farmland requires enormous effort to remove trees and vegetation. Some is burned. But most is cleared by hand with the tree roots literally dug out with hand shovels.
Once land is cleared, the seeds used here are held over from the previous growing season. Rarely are new varieties introduced and, over time, crop yield performance decreases.
And if imported seeds can be obtained from Uganda and Kenya, for instance, they are labeled as standard seeds, without any certification of purity and germination rate.
Another constraint is weeds. Farmers here report the need to remove weeds three times per crop cycle – with a crop cycle of two, six weed removal events are done over the entire growing season of six to seven months. Children do this work, all done by hand.
There is no GMO crop seed here, nor is there any chemical weed control done. Farmers here do not use (or have access to) inorganic fertilizer, therefore the entire farming industry is organic-based.
Given the enormous turnover of organic matter residue, coupled with rainfall and warm temperatures, the soils appear quite fertile. I have not yet seen a soil analysis done here, but I have asked for some to be done.
As written above, the lack of roads is a constraint even if crop yields could be increased. I am told farmers will find a way to move their harvested foodstuffs a kilometer or two at most. During the rainy period, the roads are nearly impassable, especially by heavy trucks.
I am here during the dry season and much of the roadbed is rutted with many mud bogs that must be driven through. Many governments and many NGOs are rebuilding existing roads (even a layer of asphalt-blacktop) and building new feeder roads reaching into areas of South Sudan (and Africa, too) so that farm production can be transported to urban areas.
These root causes of food security are not new to this country or new to Africa. In fact, much of Africa has additional constraints including lack of arable land, desertification, poor soil fertility, high population density and climate change.
In the rural regions of South Sudan, there is actually a shortage of labor, and I am told many of the young people no longer want to live on farms. They seek jobs and opportunities in cities. This phenomenon is a worldwide challenge for all farmers.
What to do? One could easily be overwhelmed with the enormity of the challenges, so my approach is trying to learn as much as I can from the South Sudanese themselves, so that we can help them at the level of their ability to sustain this help.
If we have learned anything in our recent development efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that we must help the host government help themselves and not do something for them because we think it is in their best interests.
So I am here in Yambio for a week talking to the state government officials, and talking with as many farmers as I can, so that we can help them appropriately and not overreach or overwhelm them with assistance they do not want or is unsustainable.
I will refer to this overarching theme in my reporting to you. I have been in South Sudan three weeks as of this writing, with five-and-a-half months yet to go. But in this short time here, I have learned there is enormous agricultural potential here in the Equatorias.
My colleagues and I just need to help the new government of South Sudan figure out how to manifest this into a food security nation, thus avoiding the recurrent humanitarian crises that have been part of Africa’s history for decades.
The long-term strategy of encouraging foreign investment here is ultimately an end state the government of South Sudan seeks.
At the recent (first annual) Agriculture Fair in Juba, a John Deere dealer from Kenya set up a small booth. A great first step for this new country of South Sudan. PD
- Agricultural Scientist
- Email Mike Gangwer