Covid-19 demolishes agriculture in South Sudan

Covid-19 demolishes agriculture in South Sudan

After initial pandemic shock, supply chain blockages, inflation and climate change present continuing threats to farmers

By Denis Morris Mimbugbe 

It’s two and half years now since the world experienced the deadly pandemic. In April 2020, South Sudan reported the country’s first case of the virus that later led to issuing related restrictions on all large gatherings nationwide, including academic institutions, markets, and domestic and international travels.

The quarantines were compulsory for all travelers with preventive measures, including wearing protective facemasks and social distancing. South Sudan’s land borders such as Kaya, Elegu, Nabiapai and others were all closed but later were opened under serious restrictions.

The repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic have affected the government, farmers, agro-dealers, and non-governmental organizations, impacting the agricultural sector in South Sudan in several ways. 

Farmer on Gondokoro island harvesting 1
A farmer in Gondokoro Island harvesting

The South Sudanese economy is based on agriculture which is largely subsistence farming, livestock rearing, fishing, and wild food collection, with average field sizes of two hectares or less per household. 

According to the South Sudan Agricultural Sector Policy Framework, about 85% of households in South Sudan cultivate crops and around 65% own cattle.

South Sudan is the youngest African nation and a fragile nation. Food availability and access remain big challenges for the majority of the population due to the country’s prolonged conflict, which has disrupted agriculture and displaced many people.

The Covid-19 pandemic, therefore, posed a serious threat to an already vulnerable situation, especially regarding food and water security.

The world’s newest country has significant land resources with a great potential to produce food to meet its own needs and that of neighboring countries. However, currently, most of the food sold in the market in South Sudan is imported. According to a Rift Valley Institute briefing paper published in April 2020, the African Development Bank in 2015 estimated that net food imports were at USD 35 billion and that on current trends, net food imports would be worth over USD 110 billion by 2025. 

The country’s agricultural sector policy framework 2012-2017, which has not yet been updated, aimed to increase domestic agricultural productivity, improve food security and contribute to economic growth and environmental sustainability. It aimed to guarantee food for all by 2015 by transforming the management of the agricultural sector to enhance farm productivity. 

However, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, food security has been at stake due to economic crisis, insecurity, and climate-related shocks such as flooding and the long drought that have led to unprecedented levels of hunger and malnutrition across the country.

Livelihoods and agricultural production have been significantly disrupted, forcing many people from their homes in search of food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the South Sudan Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry have been developing policies focusing on agricultural development in the country. 

The FAO provides farmers with agricultural tools, animal feeds, vegetable seeds, and others.

Alemu Asfan, the senior economist and project program manager, says efforts are underway to support farmers in various areas in South Sudan.

“We provide different types of support. When we say supporting agricultural sectors, we refer to availability components, food security, web access components including support on livelihood increasing, boosting the income of farmers, and increasing their access to the market, where they will be able to buy and sell their food. And the nutrition support and provision of water,” Asfan said. “We provide a sustainability plan, and to help them when we are not there they can help themselves.”

Alemu admits that Covid-19 greatly affected the production of crops because of long restrictions where farmers were unable to visit the market. 

Farmers in many parts of South Sudan practice cooperative societal activities where they jointly work in communal social groups. These groups are self-mobilizing and composed of residents, church members, kin, and non-kin to work collectively and exchange support between group members. With restrictions on social gatherings, most farmers could not gather and cultivate enough as before.

Movement challenges 

Farmers in some parts of South Sudan, especially along the River Nile, faced challenges accessing markets with their agricultural produce.

Eunice Santo is a single mother of three children based in Gondokoro Island in a Far Eastern bank of the White Nile, where she settled after the country’s independence in 2011.

Eunice says her group consists of 10 women.

She says it was a challenge for the farmers to visit the markets since all the main markets were restricted due to COVID-19, which made them not meet each other as a group as usual since the social distance was mandatory. 

“It was very difficult to come together,” Santo said. “We can’t conduct our regular meetings as a group as we normally do. When Covid-19 started we had a lot of challenges; there was no market for crops; we produced but we couldn't gain anything from it, because no one was allowed to move. We cultivate just for eating, nothing else; there was no way as all the markets were all closed.”

Groups of women from Gondokoro farmland transport their agricultural produce to the many markets by locally made boat Murkab
Groups of women from Gondokoro farmland transport their agricultural produce to the many markets by locally made boat (Murkab)

Agricultural agencies also say their operation was greatly affected due to the mandatory restrictions imposed by the government.

“Restriction and quarantine, which restrict movement of people and which restrict people from coming to work together, all this affected us as FAO, because we are working with international communities; we procure seeds, we need to interact with the market, and we need to provide training. Those training requires groups of people, face to face interaction, action, that is restricted,” Alemu said. “Also, we were restricted from moving from one state to another state; that also limited our access to the farmers.”

FAO had to suspend its major operations during the pandemic. The production drastically declined by 10 to 15 percent during the pandemic.

Alemu Asfan, Senior Economist and Project Program Manager, FAO

“The quarantine measures forced us to suspend our operations in local markets; the agricultural intervention became so expensive, so we were forced to increase our expenses in reaching out to the farmers, and in general we were not easily accessing farmers during the Covid-19 restriction. But in 2021 things significantly improved.”

The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has destructively affected the country’s economy. A 2022 International Monetary Fund (IMF) report estimated that the median global GDP dropped by 3.9% from 2019 to 2020, making it the worst economic decline. In South Sudan, the World Bank estimated a GDP contraction of 3.4 percent from Fiscal Year 2019/20 to 2020/21.

Due to the restrictions, farmers in Gondokoro Island in Central Equatoria State, Juba county suffered as their only water pump was damaged for nearly 9 months, before it was repaired when the restrictions were lifted. 

James Omeno, an agronomist and a trainer, says it was very difficult to get spare parts, fuel, and engine oil to run the water pump due to restrictions that hindered traders from entering the country. 

Eunice Santo Putia, one of the farmers at the island, says it was difficult to cultivate during the summer because of lack of water for irrigation.

She added that farmers could travel a long distance of 10 kilometers to fetch water for only domestic use and wait for winter to cultivate.

“The issue of water is a big problem for farmers here,” she said. “We fetch water from the River Nile, but it is too far; for us to cultivate we have to wait for the rainy season, and we can’t cultivate during the dry season. If we had a water pump we could have continued using it for irrigation; at least if we had one big water tank that can supply water for us it would have been fine; we travel a distance of more than 10 kilometers for fetching, but for now we dug a small well but it has no water now and sometimes it gets filled up by soil because it is not well made.”  

Government, donor support

On 17 May 2021, Bernadette Mukonyora, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Country’s Director for South Sudan, promised to provide much-needed funding to assist more than 23,900 vulnerable rural people living in 4,780 households in South Sudan. 

The statement says the grant will reduce the impact of Covid-19 on their farming activities and safeguard their livelihoods.

The statements seen by SAMA FM on the IFAD website say the organization will provide US $706,000 to support the Resilient Livelihood and Food System project, which will help small-scale producers in Bor and Torit counties improve their agricultural productivity by ensuring timely access to inputs and post-harvest technologies.

The statement says a total of 52 metric tons of seeds for maize, sorghum, groundnuts, and select vegetables at the beginning of the planting season will be distributed to farmers.

south sudan 2
Nyabany Mun Roah prepares a local dish from sorghum for her family outside their home. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

A broad look at the role of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security in South Sudan is to improve food security and champion agricultural development through local production, reduction of the import bill, diversification of the sector, value addition, employment, and promotion of consumption of local foodstuff.

Dr. Loro George Leju, the director general of agricultural production and extension services in the ministry, says the ministry is working in collaboration with other partners to provide farmers with necessary agricultural tools to boost local production in the country.

Dr. Loro says Covid-19 has greatly hindered the ministry’s operation, adding that it was unable to reach out to the rural areas and to import and transport the necessary tools from the neighboring countries.

Farmers on Gondokoro island irrigating their crops using a water pump machine 2
A farmer in Gondokoro island fixing a water pump machine for irrigation

However, he says the government is now working in collaboration with other NGOs and state governments to provide farmers with the necessary cultivation equipment and seeds after the pandemic.

The Community Resilience Initiative is a program initiated by the Women Advancement Organization, with support from Norwegian People's Aid, that provides support for small-scale farmers in South Sudan.

Suzan Pascal, the executive director and the co-founder, says they support women farmers’ associations to increase their agricultural production as a way to resist poverty in the post-pandemic. 

Climate change and insecurity

As South Sudan slowly recovers economically from the pandemic, conflict and climate change present continuing challenges.

Smallholder farmers in South Sudan face competing issues including insecurity, lack of electricity, flooding, and poor infrastructure, especially a lack of passable roads, the civil war, desert locusts, the economic situation, and a long drought.

Dr. Loro says most farmers in South Sudan cultivate based on seasonal rotations due to limited agricultural tools.

He says a few farmers in Juba, upper Nile use irrigation systems, but still on a small-scale for subsistence only.

Farmers on Gondokoro island irrigating their crops using a water pump machine 1
A farmer in Gondokoro irrigating her crops using a water pump machine

The East Africa Agriculture Tools and Seeds Limited, an agro-enterprise in Juba that supplies farmers with agricultural tools and seeds, says most of their agricultural goods are procured from the East African countries.

Fred Kioko, the executive director of the company, says the movement of goods across the region has been greatly affected due to the pandemic. 

“One of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 is that it restricted the movement of goods and people across the globe. Covid-19 also affected the global supply chain; it affected domestic and family income; farmers are unable to afford some of the basic needs and they experience shortages of some tools because the logistic for shipping was slowed down; there was raising of prices of some agricultural tools; the cost of procurement for importation went very high; there was some drastic increase so some farmers were not able to buy some other agricultural tools and seeds that affect our sales.”

Kioko says most farmers in South Sudan are low-income earners and struggle to afford agricultural tools.

“The aspect of affordability is an issue. The buying power of those farmers is a problem; they are unable to buy enough agricultural tools, and also there are challenges of insecurity in the farming lands; sometimes farmers are displaced from their original locations, so they are not able to cultivate. Sometimes there is a problem between farmers and cattle keepers in some areas. Also, many of the agro-dealers are in city centers; therefore farmers are unable to access some of the tools.”

Santo, another agro-dealer officer of Equatorial Seeds and Animal Production Company Limited, says the civil war, flooding, and inflation has affected agriculture in the country, with Covid-19 only adding to the situation. 

“Before farmers were buying directly from us; they were not relying on NGOs, but now it is only the NGOs that come and buy from us and distribute to [the farmers]. There is no much improvement as of now, because people are still recovering from the effects of Covid-19.”

Santo says in the middle of the pandemic, the country experienced a long drought that affected farmers relying on rainwater rather than irrigation. The agro-dealers say only farmers closer to the river basin survived and produced good quality crops. However, flooding also presented challenges.

“Spots of rain also had devastating effects on the crops. A lot of farmers complained, especially the side of Rajaf many were affected by flooding from River Nile… farmers along the river Luri also raised complaints of flooding.  There are few challenges of cattle invading into the farmlands; there are others in Aru Junction; their harvest was very low.”

south sudan 3
A man drives what little remains of his herd of cattle in search of pasture in Pibor. Photo: WFP/Paulina Bockowska

He says farmers in South Sudan are using the traditional method of agriculture which is for subsistence farming, though the land is very fertile.

Santo added that farmers in the country need a lot of support to recover from the impacts of Covid-19 to produce their own food, including connections to the market.

The FAO’s senior economist says the impact of climatic changes such as flooding, desert locust and drought has greatly affected crop production in areas such as Jonglei, Lakes, and the upper Nile.

Alimu Asfan says more than 37,624 tons of cereals and about 65,177 hectares of cultivated land were all damaged in 2021.

The South Sudan framework 2012-2017 Agricultural Sector Policy Framework (ASPF). | FAOLEX lists several core policy areas, including plant protection, agricultural insurance, and climate change mitigation. The plan also aimed at enhancing the institutional framework for the promotion of sustainable crop production and adverse effects of the impacts of climate change, in the medium and long-term mitigation and disease management ensuring accessibility of organic and inorganic pesticides by farmers. A new policy is currently being drafted. 

This story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Water and Development Partnership Programme.

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