With independence only months away, Southern Sudan will need to invest in infrastructure to feed and employ its people, while seeking alternatives to its economic dependency on oil, say analysts.
The key is agriculture, and one aspiring farmer, Baba Samuel Manoah has big plans for his land, which until recently was covered in dense underbrush. Now it is dotted with pineapples, young avocado trees and bananas. He envisions a commercial operation that produces not only fruit and vegetables, but also farmed fish and honey.
While his father, an MP, is busy with political affairs, Manoah plans to move home and run the farm full-time when he completes university in Kampala this year. “You can’t stay somewhere that’s developed and leave your place underdeveloped,” he said.
Six years of peace have allowed Manoah’s family to reclaim some of their land, which lay fallow during the war. He plans to expand operations and tap markets expected to develop rapidly in Africa’s newest state.
Not only could agriculture provide a lucrative business opportunity, but also jobs for the community, while helping to alleviate the desperate need for increased food production, he says.
About 2.5 million Southern Sudanese experienced food insecurity last year, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. That figure was 40 percent above the average during the previous decade. World Food Programme officials have told IRIN that the sharp rise in the number of people requiring food aid coincided with an influx of returnees in the run-up to January’s independence referendum.
Many experts say Southern Sudan should be able to feed itself. The region encompasses vast amounts of arable land, but decades of fighting prevented the agricultural sector from developing. On the eve of independence on 9 July, they say, Southern Sudan needs to focus on farming to feed and employ its people.
“In the bigger picture, agriculture has to be the main driver of economic growth,” said USAID mission director William Hammink. He added that more than 80 percent of the population depended on agriculture for their livelihoods.
In May, USAID launched a five-year, US$55 million programme in the “greenbelt”, which stretches across the region’s southern borders through Western, Eastern and Central Equatoria states, where Manoah’s farm is located. The road-building and training programme aims to “increase farm productivity, trade, and the capacity of people engaged in the agricultural sector in southern Sudan, including producers and those in the private and public sectors”.
Officials also see agricultural development as a way of weaning Southern Sudan off oil sales, which currently account for 98 percent of government revenue.
“Right now they are almost totally dependent on oil,” said Hammink, who added that the government felt the crunch when oil prices fell last year. “They had a budget crisis here. It was difficult to pay salaries.”
Hammink noted that farming, along with other sectors of the economy, will require massive investment in infrastructure in order to develop. To this end, USAID is funding the construction of a key road from the capital, Juba, to the border with Uganda. This will substantially bring down the cost of importing goods, he said.
But in a region estimated to have less than 100km of paved roads, such projects are needed almost everywhere. Boma, for example, is a collection of grass and mud huts clustered around a dirt airstrip about 60km from the Ethiopian border. The town has no running water, electricity or mobile phone network. Goods trucked in from Kenya over punishing roads are prohibitively expensive once they arrive.
“You can see the food prices are very high and most of us don’t have jobs,” said Elizabeth Kadai, a resident of Boma. “The little money you get you buy food. We cannot even get clothes or send children to school.”
Despite the need for food, the market is relatively empty. Local produce consists mainly of small piles of mangos carried down from the nearby mountains. It is the dry season and there is not much else to harvest.
Kadai called on the government to provide farm equipment, training and irrigation that would allow locals to produce enough food to feed themselves all year round.
“It’s extremely expensive, this food that is imported from neighbouring countries,” she added. “If it was grown locally here and prices would decrease, then life would really be OK here.”