More than 2.5 million hectares of land in South Sudan have been acquired mainly by international investors since 2006
By David Mono Danga
This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile and Code for Africa with support from the Pulitzer Center.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is grappling with several challenges including poverty and hunger. The country has had its fair share of unending conflict, a situation that threatens to spell doom for the country’s long dream to enjoy peace.
Since 2013, the country has been struggling to feed its population with famine being declared in several parts of the country, especially in Central Equatoria where thousands have been displaced by the renewed conflict in July 2017.
To reduce the food shortage in the country, in November 2015, the government contracted an Israeli company, Green Horizon, to help fix the gap in food production.
Green Horizon is a government project implemented by Israelites to help alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods through training local farmers and producing food for both local and international markets.
“The core portion of the agreement was for the company to manage 1,000 tractors donated by President Salva Kiir to the South Sudanese rural farmers,” said Dr. Erneo Balasio Peter, the Ministry of Agriculture coordinator and supervisor of the Green Horizon project.
The management said the project has been allocated 500 hectares of land in Jebel Ladu, 37 kilometres in the outskirts of Juba city.
Green Horizon has modern farms in Juba and Jebel Ladu in Central Equatoria State, Bor Jonglei State, Renk Upper Nile, and Torit, Eastern Equatoria State.
It also has Community Commercial Farming Projects in Wau, Gok and Rumbek towns.
These projects empower local farmers to increase production of crops on a large scale by giving them certified seeds, equipment, fertilizers and technical guidance, with farmers expected to give a percentage back to Green Horizon after selling the output.
“Once a farmer harvests the produce we help him collect it, take to the market, sell it and then share the profits,” said Yoash Zoha, the managing director.
According to Yoash, since 2016 the project has already produced 1,000 tons of maize, 200 tons of sorghum, 100 tons of groundnuts, 200 tons of rice, 250 tons of bananas and 300 tons of fresh vegetables. 2,500 tons of onions are in the ground awaiting harvest by the end of this month.
The fruits and vegetables produced by the company include sweet melon, watermelon, cucumber, cabbage, sukuma wiki, tomatoes, pawpaw, tomato, sweet and hot pepper, eggplant, okra and onions.
The company produces about one tenth of the total production of food in South Sudan, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Yoash said the project has not yet exported any of its produce, though they hope to export some onions after harvesting end of March.
“The project is not profitable yet. We hope to break even in 2019, and be profitable in 2020,” he said.
According to a report by the U.S.-based Oakland Institute, the land acquisitions began a few years prior to independence in 2011. Over five million hectares of land had already been signed away for investment for biofuels, ecotourism, agriculture and forestry in the four years leading up to a January 2011 referendum on independence, the report indicated.
Lay-offs of local workers
The Jebel Labu land, located near Juba, has been used for agriculture for decades. In 1978, former Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri opened the land as one of the government’s agricultural farms for sorghum in the then-Sudan, according to Sultan Angelo Ladu, a sub-chief in Jebel Ladu.
The farm was owned briefly in the early 1990s by the then-governor of the Equatoria Region before it was transferred to community ownership.
Sultan Angelo said before the current investors came to the area, the land was redundant because government stopped farming activities in the area and the communities did not have the capacity to cultivate large-scale farms.
Today, the Israeli farm is co-managed by a Canadian organization called the Canadian Economic Development Assistance for South Sudan (CEDASS), which originally cleared and farmed the land in 2006 for a sustainable farming project with permission from the South Sudanese government in partnership with the local communities. Since 2006, CEDASS has led economic and agricultural trainings that create jobs in the community.
Sultan Jenabio Kenyi Loku, the Chief of Gwerekek Village in Ladu County, said the Canadians had a good relationship with the local communities for the 8 years they stayed in the area.
In order to shift focus to more humanitarian-related activities such as schooling, medical services, child welfare and maternal health, CEDASS abandoned the project but partnered with Israel Agricultural Green Horizon project to manage the farm.
According to CEDASS, Green Horizon was ideally suited as the lead farm partner, as their mission is the modernization, stabilization, and welfare of communities around the world.
Chief Kenyi said Green Horizon has improved the lives of the communities around, giving them some percentage of the produce for each household and providing medical services for the community three times a week at the Green Horizon Clinic.
“The first and second years they worked well with us. They provided us with medicine. Last year they gave the community 100 bags of maize grains, which was distributed among households,” Sultan Kenyi said.
He said the company also recruited many local people to work in the farm.
Sultan Kenyi said the community is unhappy with the company management. Since the land belongs to the community, the farm should give priority to the local people instead of hiring people from far, he said.
“The land is ours; that is why we are supposed to benefit from investments here. So why are we being restricted from working?” Kenyi demanded.
Yoash Zohar, the managing director of Green Horizon, said “no worker has been fired unfairly.”
“GH works strictly in accordance with South Sudan’s labor rules and regulations… Some workers were let go due to neglecting their duties, or misbehaving. Mostly it was because they didn’t show up for work,” Yoash said.
“If any worker feels he was mistreated, he can always come and see me. I will look into each case if necessary,” he added.
Yoash acknowledged that it was better for the company to hire employees from the community than to bring them from other places.
“Any hiring or firing is based on performance, commitment, and behavior,” he said in an email to Juba Monitor.
Cililia Laku Wani, the Chairperson of Ladu County community, advises Green Horizon Project to employ people of the community in consultation with the government of Jubek state.
“It is the state government who will in turn write to us at the county to monitor and see who the people going to work at the farm are,” she said.
Wani applauded the government for taking the agricultural project to her people, but insisted she wanted the host communities to benefit.
“They should be the ones to work in the farm, including in administrative positions, because the farm is not hung somewhere (in air). It is on someone’s land, and the owners of the land are available. Even if they are a government project, the host communities must benefit,” she said.
One of the staff who lost his job, who wanted to remain anonymous for his protection, said that the Israeli project revolutionized the agricultural project more than the Canadian organization did.
He said that the farms were now well managed, especially in farm managers’ direct interactions with workers. The Managing Director Yoash Zohar always responded quickly if something went wrong, he said.
However, he said there were problems with the frequent changing of management. This made it difficult for workers to cope with the ever-changing working plans that each new manager introduced, he explained.
“The workers complained that they are mistreated. I witnessed and experienced it also,” the former worker said, stating that some workers absconded their duties as a result.
He said it was vital for Green Horizon to create a good relationship with the community for the growth and development of the country’s agricultural sector.
“If they cement a good working relationship, the community will provide enough land for Green Horizon project to expand the farm,” the former worker added.
The local government denied hearing of any formal complaint about the lay-off of employees from the host communities at Gwerekek village.
Hon. Kandido Swaka Ladu, Commissioner of Ladu County, admitted he was aware of the agricultural development Green Horizon is carrying out in Jebel Ladu.
“If there is a modern farm like Jebel Ladu Farm in your community, you should be pleased because the local people will not suffer,” Commissioner Ladu said.
He said such investments improve the prices of commodities in the local markets because citizens are able to buy produce at affordable prices.
Since it is a national government project, Commissioner Swaka said “we will now benefit from it, be it food and other assistance rendered to the community. But if the local people are not working and the farm is in their community; that will have negative impact. That is why we say if there is an investment, any investment; the first beneficiaries should be the host communities.”
The South Sudan Land Act of 2019 classifies land as public, community or private land. Public land is land owned collectively by all people of South Sudan and held in trust by the appropriate level of government. Community land is land held by communities identified on the basis of ethnicity, residence or interest, the law states.
Private land is any registered land held by any person under a freehold tenure or leasehold tenure and/or any other land that may be declared private land by law, respectively. Jebel Ladu falls under the community land category.
A food deficit
A food security assessment conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture in September last year indicated that South Sudan needed more than 1 million metric tons of food to feed each household.
About 1.2 million tons of food is needed to feed three meals a day to every South Sudanese, said Dr. Loro George Leju, the Director General for Agricultural Production.
Due to losses in crop production this year, the country needs production of mostly cereal crops to quench the looming hunger, Leju told Juba Monitor.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, South Sudan produced only 404,109 tons of food in 2018 – far below the minimum level required to feed the current population, which United Nations data estimated was about 13.2 million people as of February 2019.
Drought and civil conflict have spurred the hunger crisis. Most people from food producing towns of Yei in Central Equatoria, Yambio in Western Equatoria and Torit and Magwi in Eastern Equatoria states have been displaced into neighboring countries due to the ongoing civil conflict.
According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees updates in January, the conflict has displaced over 2.2 million people into neighboring countries and 1.97 million within South Sudan, including 193,219 in UNMISS Protection of Civilians sites (POCs), Internally Displaced People’s camps under UN mission’s control.
The World Food Program (WFP) Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report, which forecast levels of food insecurity for late 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, revealed that 5.3 million people are in need of food assistance across the country.
Dr. Leju said hunger is particularly bad in Eastern and Central Equatoria states. The Green Horizon project is meant to appease the crisis, since the food products are sold in the local markets in Juba.
However, the project is still at its infant stage, Leju said. In phase two, the farm will produce livestock and dairy products for processing and export to also improve the country’s non-oil revenue, Erneo said.
The Ministry of Trade, Industry and East African Community Affairs said trade imbalance is impeding South Sudan from exporting more agricultural products that are produced locally. Stephen Doctor Matatias, the ministry’s director general for Planning, said “we have to substitute our imports in order to create a balanced trade.”
The civil war contributed to the reduction in the country’s export potentials, Matatias said. But he insisted that South Sudan has a high potential to export agricultural products including maize, rice, sorghum, beans, groundnuts, Arabic gum, timber, honey, coffee, cotton, fish, shea butter, hibiscus, livestock and animal skins.
Dr. Leju acknowledged that foreign companies such as Green Horizon have improved food production and export potentials in the country.
“Green Horizon has actually given us a good gesture on how we can increase production or productivity of not only maize, rice, sorghum and vegetables, but also other crops,” he said. Erneo echoed this view: “This project has offered a window of improved standard of living to the farmers and the employees of the project,” he said.
Map by Code for Africa
Impact on Jebel Ladu community
The host community is divided on Green Horizon’s impact in the area. Vita Samuel, a resident and farmer in the community, said the company has been helpful to the community through various ways that include provision of farming tools, seeds and supply of clean drinking water to the people when in need.
Catharina Poni, a mother of six, said Green Horizon provides scholastic materials to pupils of Gwerekek Primary School, the only school in the area and where her grandchildren study. The 58-year-old said whenever the company harvests, the community is given part of the harvest, something she describes as unheard of with most companies.
Poni urged the company to help improve the medical services by supplying drugs to the only clinic in the village and also drill a borehole so that the people can access clean water. She said some people drink contaminated water directly from the Nile, causing dangerous sicknesses.
Most people from food producing towns of Yei in Central Equatoria, Yambio in Western Equatoria and Torit and Magwi in Eastern Equatoria states have been displaced into the neighboring countries.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – UNHCR updates in January, the conflict in the country has displaced over 2.2 million people into the neighboring countries. An additional 1.97 million people are displaced internally inside South Sudan, including 193,219 in UNMISS Protection of Civilians (POC) sites.
Dr. Leju acknowledged that foreign companies like Green Horizon that are implementing government’s food security project have improved food production in the country since the government started the food security independence project in 2014.
“Green Horizon has actually given us a good gesture on how we can increase production or productivity of not only maize, rice, sorghum and vegetables but also other crops,” Leju said.
New irrigation technologies
The Israeli managed project has been celebrated for introducing modern farming technologies to South Sudan worth billions of South Sudanese Pounds (SSP).
“The irrigation systems that they have developed are quite good,” said Leju, the Director General for Agricultural Production.
The company installed pivot irrigation systems to irrigate crops on a farm of about 448.8 hectares of land in Jebel Ladu Farm during irregularities in the weather patterns.
“We have installed 6 pivots in Jebel Ladu Farm and 1 pivot in New Land Farm. The total investment including land clearing and preparation was around 1,000,000,000 (1 billion) SSP,” the Managing Director, Yoash, said.
The company also uses drip irrigation in the banana plantation and vegetable experiment farm in the New Land Farm in Luri Surre area of Northern Bari Payam in Juba. The volume of water the irrigation systems consumes is about 200,000 and 50,000 cubic meters in Jebel Ladu and New Land Farms, respectively.
Yoash said about 6 million cubic meters of water passes in the Nile River every hour.
He calculated that the country needs about 50,000 hectares of land under irrigation and good farming to become self-sustained.
Eng. Robert Peter Zakayo, a senior inspector in the Directorate of Hydrology and Survey in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation said the irrigation systems Green Horizon is using are very efficient in conserving water.
“The drip and pivot irrigation system of irrigation is very efficient compared to open channel irrigation, because the water pumped is used for the intended purpose,” he said.
Additional reporting and editing by Annika McGinnis