Beer Could Provide Lifeline for South Sudan’s Small Farmers

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Husband to three wives, father of 10, Joseph Yekisuk, is nothing if not persistent as he detains visitors in a muddy cassava field just as they are about to head back into town. With the noonday sun beating down, the heat and humidity steadily rising, Yekisuk is making a pitch for money, hoes and gumboots. Especially the wellies. Gumboots here denote status in much the same way as the latest iPad does in London or New York. Yekisuk, with his stick-thin legs, is more likely to wear rubber boots at village meetings or social events rather than working in the cassava fields, where constant weeding is required until the tubers are ready for harvesting in July.

All the morning’s talk of modern versus traditional methods of planting cassavas culminates in this little high-noon showdown between donor and beneficiary in this field in the picturesque countryside of South Sudan, the world’s newest state. This is what development can look like at ground zero.

The haggling over hoes and gumboots takes place at Luwala, two hours from the main city, Juba, against a backdrop of lush green countryside. Fields of sweet potato, okra and groundnuts, and tukuls – the traditional round huts with conical thatched roofs – distant hills and a rust-red unpaved road make for a bewitching landscape not unlike a Gauguin painting.

Stephanie Wachira, project co-ordinator for Farm-Africa, the NGO behind the cassava project, is equally firm. “Let me be honest, when we drew up this project, we did not factor in gumboots in the budget,” she says in a mixture of English and Arabic. “There will be no gumboots.”

Back in the 4×4 – essential for Juba’s potholed roads – Wachira blames Yekisuk’s long stay in a refugee camp in Uganda for instilling this attitude of dependency. “It’s difficult for them now,” she says. “In the camps they relied on the aid agencies for everything, and it has bred a sense of dependency.”

Yekisuk, 39, is training fellow farmers to grow cassava in a project funded by the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF), which provides grants and interest-free loans to businesses in Africa and whose backers include the UK Department for International Development (DfID).

It can be seen as a test case as to whether small farmers can hook up with the private sector to drive development. Boosting food security for small farmers and enabling them to sell their surplus is seen a cornerstone of efforts to avoid a repeat of the food crisis currently affecting the Horn of Africa.

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