On a hot Thursday afternoon, we drove east from the capital city of Yambio, Western Equatoria state in South Sudan. I sat with two officials of the state Ministry of Agriculture, an official from the state Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and two persons from one of our U.S. government implementing partners.
The road, a bed of red sandy soil and gravel, wound through the bush. We were in the Greenbelt, so called because of the rainfall here for seven to eight months of the year and the relative productivity of the land to grow nearly any kind of crop. However, most of the landscape was native vegetation, an amazing collection of trees, undergrowth and grass. This was truly the bush.
Our destination was the Nzara agro-industrial complex. It is about 22 kilometers from Yambio.
We arrived at mid-afternoon. We parked the two State Department-owned Land Cruisers in the large compound yard. We were then seated in the receiving area of the administrator.
The building was decades old. At one time it appears to have been a showcase structure. A semicircle of large palm trees surrounded the yard and nearby were a row of mango trees. Sitting beneath one of them were seven soldiers, each with a long rifle and the battle dress of a combat uniform.
We were invited into the administrator’s office. He welcomed us. Here in South Sudan, like much of this part of the world, the person of authority sits behind a rather ornate desk and, in front, is a table sitting perpendicular to the desk. A series of chairs sit side by side so that, as guests enter and talk with the one behind the desk, they sit at a 90-degree angle to the person of authority.
We sat lower than him. We placed our field books on the table so we could write and turned our heads to the left or right when talking. We also signed his guest book.
The administrator told us that the Nzara complex was built 40 years ago. The complex at one time employed nearly 4,000 people. Its land base is several thousand hectares of land, and the primary crop grown here was cotton.
However, the last 20 years of war here in Sudan halted all crop growth, and the huge processing facility here was decommissioned. In what was to be the bottom line, the administrator and his staff told us they are searching for a private investor to locate here and not only farm some or all of the land base, but refurbish some of the processing facility so that jobs will be created.
We walked through the processing facility. ‘Refurbish’ was a generous word, for the infrastructure was largely worn out. There were several buildings that appeared structurally sound, but nearly everything else was beyond repair. With a bit of disappointment we walked though several buildings, viewing the remnants of old machines used to process cotton.
We saw the old power station with huge diesel engines, turning equally large generators. We saw the old cotton gin machines that removed the cotton seed from the cotton itself and then the great looms that turned cotton into cloth. The shop area had overhead cranes and a steel inventory rack the size of a small building. Our final visit was to the administrative building, a square structure that held about 30 offices, including a cafeteria and a radio room.
As we walked on this tour of the past, I felt sad for the employees left here and their hopes that after all these years an investor would come and return this ghost facility into something productive once again. My disappointment is, of course, that this facility will likely never be what it once was. The development of modern processing and textile-making has made most, if not all, of this facility outdated.
Yet there is something here … several thousand hectares of land. We spent very little time in the fields, but what we did see looked good. The soil appears to be reasonably productive where the local farmers had built small home-consumption garden plots. There is also a small commercial pineapple operation here.
I spoke to the administrator about a different approach. My suggestion was to center his efforts on the land itself and not the worn, outdated cotton processing facility. I asked him, for instance, if he had any idea of the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soils here. He looked at me blankly.
Here is a classic example of where modern agriculture has not yet arrived. As if a time delay of 20 years had occurred, this administrator – while meaning well – assumed that because the land used to be very productive, that it still would be today.
I have seen this approach elsewhere in South Sudan. A government official tells me the land has unlimited fertility, but the farmers report that once the bush is cleared and farmed for a few years, its intrinsic fertility is degraded. Crop yields really drop off the third and fourth years, so farmers will clear another acre or two of land and begin again.
This nomadic farming method (known as “shifting cultivation”) is not sustainable. I recommended to our policymakers here that this is a serious concern, and we agriculturalists need to be thinking about what can be done to maintain fertility. We know that the rapid biomass growth of the bush is a function of decomposing previous biomass now returned to the soil surface.
These nutrients enter the root zone and supply essential plant nutrients for new growth. This nutrient cycling in the tropics has been going on long before humans cleared land. The point is that once we clear the land, we are removing this ecological growth, death, decomposition and new plant growth cycle.
Much of the land here at Nzara was cleared decades ago and to what extent soil fertility has been increased with the establishment of a new “bush,” I don’t know. But the administrator should. The real value to an investor is not the worn-out industrial building and equipment, but the land base itself.
The selling point for any investor is having land already cleared in the Greenbelt, along with 1,200 to 1,500 mm of rainwater. That’s 4 to 5 feet of water per long growing season, which begins in April and ends in November.
I am preparing formal recommendations for the administrator. These include some initial quantitative measurements of texture, compaction, fertility and soil organic matter so he can describe the soils in the form of a land capability classification.
Nearly everywhere, farmers know the real value of any farm is its soil. If his soil has the properties that make them able to hold water, supply nutrients and recycle organic matter, then this is the message the administrator needs to have.
Soon an investor will be coming here to Yambio, and he has asked me to go with him to Nzara. We will schedule a time with the administrator. Maybe we can come up with a package of technical assistance so the investor may take a serious look at the Nzara complex. He is interested in the land base and not the processing facility.
My job is to help the administrator understand that, once the land is leased to an investor and crops are growing, the investor may be interested in the headquarter site as well.
The investor, by the way, is interested in edible oil production. I will help him if I can. PD
USDA FAS Senior