The agricultural sector in the independent South Sudan has more potential than the much fancied oil, gas and minerals. However, agriculture has not received the deserved attention from both locals and foreign investors compared to the other three.
Compared to Kenya where only a third of the land is arable, southern Sudan has 80 per cent arable land. The traditional higher rainfall in that country promotes trees and shrubs as well as herbs, offering a high potential for agriculture. Rivers have been historically important in Sudan, with River Nile forming the basis of much of the economic activity of the former larger Sudan.
But the South Sudan minister for agriculture, Dr Ann Itto , who took over the ministry only nine months ago, conceded that the agricultural sector has a long way to go to realise its full potential despite the many factors favouring it.
For instance, in the last financial year, the agricultural sector received only one per cent of the national budget as more priority was given to national security and road infrastructure development. This is despite the fact that South Sudan has the potential of feeding the entire eastern African region.
Dr Itto believes that priorities will change to give more focus to agriculture. Key factors that have worked against agriculture in the last six years of interim period include lack of feeder roads to agriculturally potential areas, storage system, and lack of electricity and water that would allow development of agriculture- based industries. Insecurity and of late climatic change are additional impediments.
The minister gave the example of maize that is normally planted in March and April, but this year the farmers have lost their crops because rains stopped a few weeks after planting. They no longer know when to plant. Most farmers have camped in towns because of insecurity.
Thus, agricultural sector is one area that requires huge investment, both by the government and foreign investors.
Dr Itto regrets that most foreign investors in South Sudan are eyeing banking, hospitality and oil sectors where they can make quick money, unlike agriculture that requires huge long term investments without necessarily immediate returns.
But she is confident that the elaborate programmes put together by the ministry will soon bear fruits. By 2013, the ministry is planning to increase production to two million metric tonnes of cereals.
The current average production for traditional farmers is three 90kg bags compared to three tonnes for Zambian or South African farmer. The ministry is pushing for an increase between three to 12 bags per farmer by next year.
To meet the two million tonnes, the ministry is planning to increase farm size and areas under production from 0.3 hectares to 4.3 hectares
“While we are looking at producing two million metric tonnes, we only need 840,000 tonnes for local consumption while the rest must go somewhere through trade. That is why we want to belong to regional bodies to make it easier to trade with the region, because there is no need of the rest of Africa importing maize from the US or Europe while south Sudan is a potential bread basket,” she said.
Currently, there are three systems of farming. The first is traditional rain-fed farming, where 80 per cent of farmers are involved. Large-scale mechanised farming with the use of tractors, fertilisers, and good seeds are only found in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, with little population and huge tracks of land.
The third is the small-scale irrigated systems mostly in upper Nile. Dr Itto says that the government plans to expand irrigation systems to counter the effects of climatic change.
But before the agricultural sector can achieve its full potential, Dr Itto noted that a number of issues must be addressed and key strategies adopted. The fist is attitude change, to prove to the locals that agriculture could be well paying by organising international shows where farmers would exchange ideas and learn about opportunities.
The second is to create a conducive legal environment to govern the use of pesticides, fertilisers, horticulture, training and extension services. The ministry already has a draft policy framework to govern private sector players.
The third strategy is to increase farmer’s access to agricultural inputs and $10 million has been set aside with the help of development partners to grow the high yield seed sector, packaging and banking for the next three years.
Farm machinery is another area that needs serious re-thinking. Previously, the government merely donated 500 tractors; an approach Dr Itto admits was a mistake because “agricultural modernisation is not tractorisation” as she put it. The farmers had tractors but they did not have drivers, mechanics and spare parts.