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.”
By Jesse Chang