South Sudan: Sowing seeds for the future

29 May 2013

April 2013, Juba, South Sudan: Two young boys look after their small 'farm' at a centre for people returning to South Sudan. More than 1.9 million people have returned to South Sudan since 2007, with many of them facing chronic food insecurity. Photo: UNHCR/T. Ongaro
More than 1.9 million South Sudanese have returned home since 2007. Aid agencies are working to help them break the cycle of hunger that many face.

In the grounds of their temporary accommodation in Juba, two young boys tend to a clutch of seedlings. They clear any weeds, and water the plants when there is no rain. Each day, 8-year-old Majuang and his 6-year-old brother Gum spend hours working on their fragile crops, imagining the lives they hope to live now that they have returned to South Sudan.

Majuang and Gum arrived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, with their mother and father a few months ago. Since then, they have been living at a way station that is run by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, with support from a local NGO. The family left Sudan more than a year ago. They are now waiting for their luggage to arrive by barge and then they will begin their final journey to Rumbek in Lakes State, where their father’s roots are.

Their mother and father were among an estimated 4 million people who were displaced by the civil war between Sudan and the forces that now make up the South Sudanese military. Since 2007, an estimated 1.9 million South Sudanese have returned home.

Turning stories into practice

“I’m inspired by stories from my father,” explains Majuang. He and his brother learnt about farming from their father and his stories about life in Rumbek. They hope to continue the family tradition when they eventually arrive.

When they reached Juba the young boys decided to turn their father’s lessons into practice. They grew the seedlings from maize and sorghum grains that were left over from a food distribution and they planted them in the ground outside the dormitory where their family sleeps. Their commitment is clear. The crops are partitioned by small stones and the boys have even created a small nursery.

South Sudan will need their energy and ingenuity.

Small dreams, bigger picture

For many returnees, and for many host communities, the transition back into South Sudan has been difficult. The country’s rapidly growing population has placed huge pressure on its meager food resources.

Majuang and Gum’s crop is unlikely to make much of a dent in South Sudan’s food situation. The country’s cereal deficit for 2013 is estimated at 371,000 metric tons – this is less than last year but more than in 2010 when the deficit was 225,000 metric tons. In a report released in March by aid agencies in South Sudan, it was estimated that more than 4 million people will need food aid ahead of this year’s late harvest in December. Around one million of them may be severely food insecure.

But there is cause for hope. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 95 per cent of South Sudan is suitable for agriculture, with 50 per cent considered prime agricultural land. Indeed, aid organizations estimate that the country could produce enough food to feed itself – and break its reliance on emergency food aid – by 2018.

To achieve this, an additional five per cent of the country must be developed for agriculture, and farmers will need to increase productivity by about 17 per cent. On top of this, thousands of kilometres of roads must be built and significant investments made in updating agricultural processes and systems.

“Addressing food security and breaking the cycle of hunger requires investment in the right kind of programmes,” said Toby Lanzer, the Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan. “This is why the UN and NGO partners have been supporting the Government to design programmes that address short-term needs and at the same time build the resilience of households and communities.”

Hope in the future

For now, providing food aid remains a priority for the humanitarian community. In 2013, humanitarian agencies are targeting approximately 3 million people, including 490,000 school children like Majuang and Gum. Aid organizations are also providing seeds and tools to the returnees once they finally reach their homes.

In Rumbek, Majuang and Gum’s ultimate destination, aid organizations have worked with local authorities to prepare 200 plots of land for returning families. With this land, and the right agricultural assistance, Majuang and Gum might one day live out their dreams of living off the land.