JUBA, Sudan (AlertNet) - Equipped with seeds, tools and a crash course in improved agricultural techniques, Elizabeth Musa has succeeded in doubling her maize harvest this year.
Short-term investments in small-scale farmers, like Musa, are vital in helping south Sudan to grow more of its own food in a region with virtually no mechanised farming.
Hunger is a fact of life for many people in this region, devastated by decades of civil war, clashes between rival ethnic groups and rebel attacks. Between 20 and 50 percent of its 8 million people require food aid each year.
“There were times I really didn’t have food for myself and my children,” said Musa, a 45-year-old widow with five children.
“I am now able to send my children to school.”
Musa received help from the Bangladeshi non-governmental organisation BRAC, which is providing similar assistance to more than 4,000 farmers across the south -- most of them women.
Only 4 percent of south Sudan’s fertile arable land is farmed, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Most of the food sold in local markets is imported from neighbouring Uganda.
But a Jan. 9 referendum allowing southern Sudanese to decide on whether to stay or separate from Sudan is raising hopes of a new era of investment and development.
The vote, part of a 2005 peace deal ending two decades of war between the northern Khartoum government and southern rebels, is widely expected to favour independence.
“South Sudan is a country that can produce a good amount of food that can really cater for the population,” said Asega Charles Aggrey, a food security official in the semi-autonomous southern government.
“If you can give the people the seeds and the inputs so they can open (farm) a bigger chunk of land, we do believe that we after some time we will move away from this reliance on humanitarian aid.”
PHASING OUT EMERGENCY OPS
If there is independence and peace is secured, aid agencies hope to move from emergency response to longer-term development projects.
WFP, the main provider of food aid, hopes the number of food aid beneficiaries will drop significantly over the next five years.
“The ultimate goal is to phase out of the country,” said Yukinori Hibi, head of WFP’s Equatoria sub office, which is supporting BRAC’s agricultural extension project.
Under a new Purchase for Progress (P4P) programme launched this year, WFP is buying cereals from local farmers to use in food aid packages elsewhere in south Sudan with the aim of supporting local markets.
However, scaling up the programme is proving difficult.
“There is a great potential for obtaining most of the WFP foodstuffs locally,” said Andrew Odero, head of WFP’s vulnerability assessment mapping unit.
“But operationalising that process would take a long time because of (lack of) infrastructure, because of lack of skills, because of absence of farmer associations to organise farmers into groups that can produce and meet their targets effectively.”
It is expensive for WFP to travel around south Sudan buying small amounts of food from individual farmers because of high transport costs. Quality is poor and prices are higher than the food aid which is traditionally shipped in from the United States.
During its first year of operation, WFP only bought about 400 metric tonnes of food through P4P.
Peace and good rains are critical to the success of south Sudan’s agricultural sector.
The most fertile area is the south-western greenbelt of Western Equatoria, Central Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal.
“This is the productive area ... that can support the nation,” said Aggrey of the government’s food security unit.
But the greenbelt has been plagued by attacks by Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who carry out cross-border raids from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Since 2005, they have been killing, raping and abducting Sudanese civilians as they loot and burn their villages.
In 2010, 42,000 people in Western Equatoria were forced to flee by the LRA, which prevented them from cultivating their land.
Localised conflicts between ethnic groups in areas like Jonglei State also contribute to hunger as people are displaced and they lose their assets, such as cattle.
The other unpredictable element is the weather.
“We have been alternating from drought, flood, drought, flood, drought,” said Odero of WFP.
In 2009, there was severe drought followed in 2010 by floods which drove almost 140,000 people out of their homes.
However, the improved rainfall in 2010 resulted in a 30 percent larger harvest than the previous year. WFP predicts this will reduce the number of severely food insecure households -- or families that it knows will need food aid -- from 30 to 10 percent of the population in 2011.
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