It’s a hot afternoon in Jalle, a remote village in the eastern part of South Sudan, and Wani Akong is busy setting ablaze piles of maize straws in her farm. Plumes of smoke rise to the sky, a reminder of the increasing concerns surrounding the practice that have led to growing restrictions against it. But Akong isn’t just looking for the short-term quick fix the practice is often seen as. She has a plan in mind, and it is working.
Farmers across the developing world have for decades relied on stubble burning to kill weeds, slugs and pests and to cheaply clear the field. But apart from polluting the air, the process also depletes nutrients in the soil. To tilt the balance a little more in her favor, Akong methodically drags patches of sun-fried soil from the razed stalks to create elevated beds that she uses for growing beans and maize.
The strategy Akong employs has been scientifically shown, over the past decade, to reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation, control weeds better and mitigate the damages of stubble burning. And she isn’t alone. The 46-year-old is among many farmers in the impoverished country who are using modern farming techniques to protect and promote agriculture-based livelihoods, with training from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and nonprofits.
I have developed strong skills, and my crop yields have increased.
Wani Akong, South Sudanese farmer
Torn by a civil war since 2013, the world’s youngest nation has faced rampant food shortages that have pushed almost 2.8 million people on the edge of survival, according to the FAO. South Sudan is also highly vulnerable to natural disasters, and changing weather patterns — which bring long dry spells followed by flooding — are further complicating the nation’s search for food security. And that’s not all. Recurring tribal conflicts have often caused widespread violence — displacing people while disrupting their livelihoods, in a country where 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture. But resilient farmers and pastoralists, helped by the UN agency and charities working in South Sudan, are developing innovative solutions to take on the threat of hunger and starvation that otherwise stares at them.
“I have developed strong skills, and my crop yields have increased,” asserts a confident Akong, as plumes of smoke rise to the sky around her.
At the heart of this new optimism is the FAO’s ramped-up outreach to the country’s farmers. The agency started running schools to train farmers in increasing their yield in undivided Sudan four decades back, but the emphasis on what is now South Sudan has grown now. In 2016, the FAO launched a $155 million “resilience strategy” in the country to help vulnerable farmers and herders emerge from the ravages of war by promoting modern agricultural-based livelihoods. Already, production of cereals has improved compared to last year, says Serge Tissot, FAO’s representative in South Sudan.
Before her training at an FAO farm school, Akong hardly harvested 15 bags of maize per acre. Now, she gets 35 to 40 bags, more than enough to cushion her family from hunger. She learned how to identify early warnings of impending weather threats, water harvesting and mixed farming methods that allow her to blend fast-maturing and drought-resistant crops. Married with five children, she grows beans, vegetables, maize, red millet, pulses, potatoes and cassava on her 13-hectare farm.
The FAO isn’t alone, though. Standing in his farm in the eastern Equatoria state, Mabior Kenyi gently holds the woody shrubs of a fresh cassava tree. For years, Kenyi sold pulses and legumes for a living. But frequent wars made the business unsustainable, and his family spent many nights without food. Then, in 2015, he joined a training program run by Cordaid, a Dutch Catholic charity trying to empower local farmers to adapt better to changes, natural or man-made, using smart agricultural technologies and practices. Kenyi switched to vegetable farming and now grows okra, pigeon pea, tomatoes, pumpkins and peppers — all of which, it turns out, are more profitable. “Vegetables are an important part of South Sudanese dishes, so the demand is high,” he says. Cordaid trains more than 10,000 farmers — 30 percent of them women — in Equatoria state, according to the company’s website. Cordaid project manager William Aranga had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Even with these initiatives and the new techniques farmers are picking up, South Sudan continues to face a food shortage, says Tissot of the FAO, in part because food demand too has gone up. The annual demand for cereals went up from 200,000 metric tons in 2016 to 500,000 metric tons in 2017.
But the impact of these sustainable farming initiatives is undeniable — and these projects, say experts, are critical for South Sudan. “I am confident that various skills being imparted on farmers to identify risks, respond to disaster and absorb any shocks have the potential to help them recover,” says David Lomeling, associate professor of agriculture science at Juba University.
The benefits of these initiatives are spilling over beyond just farming.
Traditionally, livestock are often the target of theft and killings during clashes between communities. These animals are central to a household’s search for food income and social security, and taking that away is an effective tool of social punishment. The frequency of such clashes goes up during periods of seasonal migration when pastoralists move to find water and pastures for their animals. Farmers often accuse pastoralists of allowing herds of cattle to roam their fields and destroy their crops. But the FAO is now devising strategies to minimize such clashes.
For pastoralist Ochilo Gatkuoth’s animals, the reservoir of water in Magwi village in Equatoria state was earlier strictly out of bounds. Now, under the dialogue supervised by FAO-trained officers, he needn’t worry. When he and other pastoralists in the region migrate, they alert farmers by using horns and bells. And farmers, if their crops aren’t yet harvested, show them a different route, says Gatkuoth. This new model of cooperation between communities that traditionally saw each other as rivals for limited resources may not stop South Sudan’s civil war. The new farming techniques may not halt the bloodshed either. But for communities caught in the crossfire, these rare success stories are offering hope — and a chance to survive that war.
Chol Duang contributed to this report.
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