Growing hope for the future: improving sustainable food systems in South Sudan

Kirsty Scott

21 August 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

I grew up as a refugee myself. In the refugee towns, hunger was almost dominant all the time. You rely on food that is supplied to you. And that informed the reason why, when I went for my bachelor’s degree, I chose to do food science and technology. Because I want to understand, what are the issues behind food insecurity, and why is there no food available.

Justin Miteng

In 2011, South Sudan became the newest country in the world after more than two decades of civil war with Sudan, the longest civil war in Africa’s history. During the prolonged conflict in Sudan, over 10,000 people were killed, and 5.6 million people displaced, both internally and to nearby countries, including South Sudan, Chad, and Ethiopia. 

Food security is a major challenge in South Sudan. According to the World Food Programme, 7.7 million people are facing food insecurity, and 1.4 million children are facing acute malnutrition. Four years of consecutive flooding brought on by climate change has exacerbated food production issues and destroyed famers’ livelihoods. Relief agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) and United Nations, have deployed rapid response teams to distribute food and tackle the crisis.

With a focus on providing immediate relief through food distribution, there has been slow investment in developing sustainable food systems to produce food internally in South Sudan. Since 2011, however, NGOs and other agencies have implemented programmes aimed at increasing sustainable agricultural development to reduce reliance on aid and increase food security.

Despite these efforts, in 2023, it was estimated that South Sudan’s in-country food production fed less than half of the population.

Commonwealth Alumnus Justin Miteng is the South Sudan Country Director for the International Fertilizer Development Centre (IFDC) overseeing the implementation of a five-year project on Accelerating Agriculture and Agribusiness in South Sudan for Enhanced Economic Development (A3-SEED). The programme aims to provide market-oriented interventions to move from humanitarian support to a commercial, sustainable, and adaptive agriculture sector.

Understanding food security challenges

Justin’s motivation to work on these programmes stems from his personal experience growing up as a refugee in Uganda.

“I grew up as a refugee myself. In the refugee towns, hunger was almost dominant all the time. You rely on food that is supplied to you. And that informed the reason why, when I went for my Bachelor’s degree, I chose to do food science and technology. Because I want to understand, what are the issues behind food insecurity, and why is there no food available.”

Following his Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology, Justin took up a position with the Lutheran World Federation in South Sudan to increase food distribution to displaced communities in remote parts of South Sudan. It was here that Justin noticed that people who had semi-settled in their new community were trying to produce their own food rather than relying on aid. This motivated him to focus his career on developing sustainable food systems to reduce food insecurity.

Quality over quantity

As a Country Director at the IFDC, Justin works closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, farmers, and NGOs in South Sudan to deliver projects designed to improve the agricultural sector. One project Justin is passionate about is A3-SEED, which seeks to increase agricultural productivity and production in South Sudan through the development of seed systems.

Following an assessment of the factors affecting the agricultural sector, the project team discovered that there was limited availability of high-quality seeds to support adequate crop production.

“One of the characteristics of the seed sector in South Sudan is that there is a lot of recycling of seed, over and over a generation. As you recycle seed it loses viability. It loses its characteristic of yield, resistance to disease, and other factors. We discovered that was a main issue causing farmers to cultivate more but get less.”

The project therefore needed to focus on improving seed quality at the farmer level as an immediate priority.

A significant challenge in addressing seed quality is that humanitarian organisations distribute seed for free as a means of encouraging local food production. However, the seeds distributed are imported from surrounding countries, such as Kenya and Uganda. As with many imported goods, it is difficult to guarantee the quality of the seeds and that they will adapt to the soil and climate conditions found in South Sudan.

To overcome this, the project focused on improving local seed production through a market-based system. To do this, Justin sought investment from 10 private sector seed companies to produce seed for sale.

“We didn’t want to just invest money and hire people to produce seed and then distribute for free, the way the others do. We wanted to ensure that the registered private sector seed companies were involved in the production of this seed.”

Whilst locally produced seeds do not necessarily guarantee quality, Justin notes that within the local market-system, farmers can report poor quality seeds and crop yields and these seeds can then be removed from market circulation.

Increasing productive capacity

Seed market in South Sudan during planting seasonThrough the contract with the seed companies, over 1,000 famers across South Sudan were mobilised as out-growers to produce seed to sell back to the companies for distribution. As part of this package, information about the seed crop can also be distributed to farmers, such as how to produce and handle them, and the optimum time for harvesting.

“We are working on building both the productive capacity of seed companies and the distribution capacity of the seed companies to the farmers. We call it the last mile distribution, bringing the seed closer to the farmer.”

Bring together businesses and growers

Justin admits that there are challenges in implementing the project. Introducing a cost for seeds when they are provided for free by humanitarian organisations means they need to communicate the advantages of the new seed system clearly to farmers. He also notes that in other countries, governments are responsible for establishing quality assurance processes and conduct checks on seed company operations and to certify the quality of the product. There is currently no regulatory framework or seed policy in place in South Sudan and, as such, seeds can only be ‘quality declared’ rather than certified.

Justin and his team are working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to establish these processes, including developing national and state level laboratories to conduct checks. Working with the University of Juba, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and seed researchers in neighbouring countries, he is also excited about opportunities for developing research centres in South Sudan to investigate seed varieties, early generation seeds, and quality control.

The project implementation is still ongoing, but Justin is confident it will reach its overall goal of strengthening food production and security in South Sudan. He hopes to see 100,000 farmers access seeds across the country and to report a doubling in crop yield and business demand for crops. Improving livelihoods and employment is also a key priority. With the improving connections between farmers, agro-dealers, and seed companies, businesses are expected to grow and increase their profits and employment opportunities to meet the demands of the value chain. He hopes this in turn will open employment opportunities for women and young people to build the agriculture economy.

Seeding change

Justin attributes his knowledge of agricultural systems to his Master’s in International Natural Resource Management from Bangor University. He describes the course as a comparative study of global agricultural production systems, where he was able to compare production systems across the world, from agriculture to animal systems to agri-forestry, and to understand the impact of external factors such as climate change on these different systems.

In the future, he hopes to continue to work on implementing sustainable agricultural food systems and building his skills and knowledge to pursue further leadership opportunities.

“At management level the sky is the limit. Next time I speak with you, I might be regional director.”

Justin Miteng is South Sudanese and a 2006 Commonwealth Shared Scholar from Uganda. He studied for a MSc International Natural Resource Management at Bangor University.