South Sudan: Sowing the seeds of a farming revolution

13 July, 2011 by (comments)

As independence celebrations subside, the real work of nation-building must now begin – with a major role for agriculture

Agricultural assistance will be critical to the development of the world’s newest nation, and existing support will require a major re-think, according to a new report published recently by CIAT, FAO and an alliance of research partners.

As the ten southern-most states of Sudan formally broke away last week to form the independent Republic of South Sudan, the new country joined the ranks of some of Africa’s least-developed nations. While its economy is largely dependent on its significant oil reserves, subsistence farming supports around 80 per cent of the population and over half of rural people live below the poverty line.

The good news is that there is widespread agreement that the country has great potential for a farming revolution, after decades of civil war crippled agricultural development. More than three-quarters of South Sudan is cultivable – almost triple that of neighbouring Kenya – and a recent FAO-funded satellite survey found that less than five per cent of available land is currently under cultivation.

The recent South Sudan Seed System Security Assessment (SSSA), led by CIAT and FAO, goes right to the heart of some of the drivers of development in the country: farmers’ access to good quality planting material, and their ability to grow resilient, profitable crops. The study found that farmers were largely able to rely, and even expand cultivate land areas, drawing on functioning local seed channels.  Farmer planned to expand sowing amounts by almost 80 per cent across crops; even the IDP/returnee groups reported they would increase the amount they sow by over 60 per cent.

Yet while existing local systems of seed production and distribution work well overall, farmers in some areas are highly vulnerable, due to a combination of labour and income shortages, human health problems, and a potentially destabilising dependence on foreign seed aid.  Women-headed households in particular face formidable challenges opening up new land and fencing fields to keep out the many wild and domestic animals. The SSSA found that less than one per cent of farmers use mineral fertiliser, and that poor post-harvest storage facilities and an almost non-existent transport infrastructure create significant bottlenecks for food security and much needed agro-enterprise development.

The SSSA also uncovered a widespread need to identify and make accessible varieties of sorghum, maize, cassava, and vegetables that are well-adapted to local conditions, meet farmer preferences, and respond to dynamic market needs. In-country crop breeding, landrace conservation and decentralised seed production will also help to form the basis of a sustainable, dynamic food production system, and local innovation and active participation of farmers in breeding efforts should be encouraged and supported. Where seed aid it is being repeatedly implemented – for three consecutive seasons or more – the report recommends aid agencies, donors and the government of South Sudan conduct a thorough review.

There’s plenty more in the extensive 140-page report, which we hope will form one of the cornerstones of development efforts in South Sudan, helping the country realise its agricultural potential.

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