That the most important feature of the sector; Juba is expanding wildly with the excitement of independence from the Muslim North and an influx of Sudanese returnees and Kenyan and Ugandan job-seekers. But almost all the food is imported despite the enormous potential of the so-called "Greenbelt" that runs along the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. While Eastern Equatoria is rather dry, once one moves West past Yei the land is green all year round. This is classic equatorial rainforest with up to 2,000 mm of rain annually and reasonably good soils; potentially this region can be the bread and fruit basket of Africa.
However the emphasis should be on the word "potential" because right now there is almost no infrastructure to support commercial smallholdings. The main roads are reasonable, and one can reach Juba from Yambio (right in the heartland of the greenbelt and a considerable town) in 9 hours, but there are no post harvest facilities (cooling, drying, storage) etc. and the largest single donor-funded project FARM SUDAN (USAID, $55 million) aimed at tackling this lack has been stymied by confused policies and administrative difficulties.
So through much of the region one finds returnee homesteaders struggling with very limited resources to re-establish their small plots of maize, sorghum and cassava. These people receive seeds and tools from the many NGOs operating emergency relief but the "truck and chuck" approach doesn't really engender sustainable development and there has to be a paradigm change before the potential of the Greenbelt is realised. In the meantime food security is an important issue with the World Food Programme (WFP) estimating a possible 3 million people are at risk.
The other issue is foreign investment. There is huge interest in the area - for example we came across Dole looking at pineapple in Yambio. Large-scale investment in agriculture will have to be handled very carefully with regard both for the returnees who own the land under traditional rights (so it's not simply a case of the new Government giving concessions away) and the hugely sensitive rainforest environment. Climate change is a real issue here and it is inexplicable that USAID has discounted this in their approach to development in South Sudan (an assertion made on the basis of a direct quote from responsible persons in the AID Mission in Juba).
Another concern is the influence of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in some of the most productive land between Yei and Yambio. We saw burned-out villages and social infratsucture (clinics, schools). We also saw elements of the Ugandan Defence Force deep inside Sudanese territory, so the question of civil instability is raised.
Despite these concerns, one can be optimistic about the future. Once South Sudan joins the East African Community (EAC) as indeed it will shortly after 9th July, we will see much more assistance and investment from neighbouring countries. Food supply to the cities and support for the development of a viable smallholder sub-sector will remain the areas for work going forwards.
For a more personal perspective on Southern Sudan, please check out Quartermaine's World
Smallholder near Torit, Eastern Equatoria State
Aerial view of gardens over the Greenbelt
Progressive farmer at Yambio, Western Equatoria State