For over 40 years, Gabriel Dete survived on farming to feed his extended family until all came to an abrupt end four years ago after violence spread to his home town of Yambio, a fertile region along South Sudan’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“I have been farming since childhood because my father was a prominent farmer in the village,” 60-year-old Dete told Xinhua during a recent interview. “I inherited my father’s farms after his death and for over 40 years, I have been growing maize for sell and also to feed my children,” he added. Located in the Western Equatoria region of South Sudan, Yambio has been described as the country’s breadbasket because of its huge agricultural potential. But farming slowed down in the region due to insecurity and displacement after renewed violence erupted across the world’s youngest nation following the collapse of a 2015 peace deal in July 2016. Dete said he used to harvest more than 100 bags (about 50 Kg) of maize every season, but the output was reduced to just 10 bags in 2017 because of insecurity. “I used to walk over 10 kilometers to cultivate my garden but when the conflict reached Yambio in 2016, I stopped going to the garden because it was too risky to go out of town,” Dete said. “Life became hard for me because I was struggling to feed my family and also send my children to school,” said Dete.
South Sudan descended into conflict in December 2013, after President Salva Kiir sacked his deputy Riek Machar, which led to fighting between soldiers loyal to the rival leaders.A peace agreement signed in 2015 collapsed following renewed violence in July 2016, which forced Machar to flee the capital.The six-year conflict displaced about four million people both internally and externally. “I have been farming to raise money for my education but when the war started, I stopped going to school because the road was not safe,” said Charles Kumbonyaki, a 24-year-old maize farmer from Bakbapara village in Yambio. “I also abandoned farming because you cannot risk your life by going to the bush to be killed or abducted by gunmen,” he added. Another peace deal signed in September 2018 seems to give the people of the war-torn country hope after parties to the pact formed a new transitional government on Feb. 22. “We hope this peace can be real so that we resume our normal lives,” said Dete. “We want our children to go to school and also grow enough food for our families.”
For 49-year-old Rozeta Bangondi, a widow and maize farmer in Yambio, formation of the government gives her hope that the guns will finally go silent and enable farmers to like her to grow more food and rebuild their destroyed livelihoods.”I plan to cultivate more so that I can have enough maize to sale and build a house,” Bangondi said. Sandra Hakim, Program Policy Officer with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in South Sudan, said there has been an increase in food production in Western Equatoria since 2018, adding that peace and security would provide favorable conditions for farmers to produce enough food to feed the whole country. “We have seen farmers producing more and I think this only came with peace and security. I think with peace and stability in this area, farmers are able to freely move around,” Hakim said. “Western Equatoria is the food basket of South Sudan and it should continue to thrive,” she added.
Apart from the conflict, farmers in the Western Equatoria region also faced challenges in accessing the market for their produce due to bad roads which caused substantial losses to those who produce in excess. In a bid to boost resilience and reduce post-harvest losses, the WFP is supporting stallholder farmers by providing a market for locally produced maize and also providing capacity building services to help improve the quality of produce. WFP imports an estimated 345,000 tons of food annually for its assistance mission in South Sudan, and local farmers could help cut the gap if given necessary assistance, said Tomson Piri, WFP Spokesperson in South Sudan. Since September 2018, WFP procured more than 1,000 tons of maize from farmers through its Smallholder Agricultural Market Support project in western Equatoria.”WFP can buy food anywhere in the world but it is our hope that we will exist in South Sudan as a buying office to feed South Sudanese,” Piri said.