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Beer could provide lifeline for South Sudan’s small farmers | Mark Tran

One of the biggest challenges for small farmers and policymakers is to develop markets for drought-tolerant crops such as cassava. Beer could provide a solution

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.

One of the biggest challenges for small farmers and policymakers is to develop markets for drought-tolerant crops such as cassava and sorghum. There is little incentive for them to do so unless they can find buyers prepared to pay a good price.

In South Sudan, Southern Sudan Beverages Limited (SSBL), not just the only brewery but the only industry in the new country, is willing to take a punt on people like Yekisuk. SSBL is part of the SAB Miller drinks giant, which has been accused of avoiding millions of dollars of tax in India and African countries by routing profits through tax havens. The company has invested in mobile processing machines that will turn the cassava into starch for its beers, White Bull and the stronger Nile Special, for the local market.

SSBL is hoping to get 1,200-1,500 tonnes of cassava next July to replace the barley it is bringing into the country for its current annual beer production of 250,000 hectare litres – a figure it intends to double. There seems to be plenty of demand for beer in Juba. Young men drive up to the factory gates on their scooters to whisk away crates of beer.

Ian Alsworth-Elvey, SSBL’s managing director, was the man who convinced his bosses that South Sudan was worth the investment in 2008, when it was still part of Sudan. It was a m gamble as Sudan was predominantly Muslim, unlike Southern Sudan, which is largely Christian. Alsworth-Elvey, a South African who has worked all over the continent, says the company has made sure everything is in place for the fledging partnership with small cassava farmers, from providing them with cassava cuttings for planting to setting up mobile processing units. Now it is up to the farmers.

“This has to be mutually beneficial,” says Alsworth-Elvey, who is bullish about South Sudan’s prospects. “We will endeavour to do everything that we can, but they have to be able to produce. The biggest issue is yields, they’ve got to get the yields up.”

That means persuading around 2,000 small farmers to change their traditional planting methods. Yekisuk, in his short-sleeved green T-shirt, knee-length denim shorts and plastic sandals, is yet to be convinced by the new technique. This entails placing a single 20cm-30cm cutting horizontally in a shallow hole. The holes are 1 metre by 1 metre from one another in straight lines.

In the traditional method, two cuttings are placed in a cross, with one on them poking through the soil, which forms a mole hill-like mound – unlike the new method where the soil is flat. The two techniques are being tried out simultaneously in several fields that have been donated by local bigwigs for the trials. As he surveys the plants in a three-hectare field, Yekisuk who returned in 2008 after fleeing the civil war in 1994, makes clear he is not yet a convert.

“I prefer the traditional method,” he says, although he acknowledges that everything will depend on July’s harvest, when it will be clear which method is superior.

At a field further down the road, Jacinta Doki, a widow with four children, already likes the new method. She says it makes it easier to manoeuvre round the plants for weeding and she expects a bigger yield. Doki, surrounded by fellow-farmers from her group, explains how to make ends meet: she searches for gold, she says, pointing to a mountain in the distance, camping away from her children two weeks at a time.

For all concerned, next July will be the moment of truth in an experiment to boost food security for this group of South Sudanese farmers and to see whether they can find a steady market for their cassava. Maybe then Yekisuk will get the gumboots he craves. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds