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Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Cairo — A war between military factions in Sudan is putting the production of staple crops in 2023 at risk, farmers in several states say, threatening to drive the African nation deeper into hunger and poverty.

Reuters spoke to more than a dozen people including farmers, experts and aid workers who reported delays in planting crops such as sorghum and millet, partly due to a lack of credit from banks and the high prices of key inputs such as fertilisers, seeds and fuel.

Four of the farmers spoken to said they may not be able to plant at all before heavy rains expected in July, the traditional window for planting.

The worsening conditions for farmers suggests a looming hunger crisis could be even worse than the UN and aid workers have forecast. In May, the US said it estimated that the number of people going hungry in Sudan would rise to 19.1-million by August from 16.2-million prior to the conflict, which started in April.

Shortages of key staples — exacerbated by looting of warehouses in cities such as the capital, Khartoum — would further worsen a hunger crisis that has been steadily building in recent years.

It could also cripple livelihoods and deprive Sudan of foreign currency needed to import basic commodities, as cash crops such as sesame and peanuts accounted for $1.6bn in export revenues in 2022, according to central bank figures.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), nearly 65% of Sudan's population of 49-million is engaged in the agricultural sector.

While UN experts say it’s too early to officially declare a famine in Sudan, four farmers said they believed the situation was already heading in that direction.

“Peanuts should have been sowed. People should have started to grow sorghum. Until now, our preparation is zero,” said Abdelraouf Omer, a farmer and union leader in Al Gezira state, a key agricultural region in central Sudan that has not seen fighting. “We think we're threatened with a famine.”

FAO said last week it had started emergency distribution of sorghum, millet, groundnut and sesame seeds, and hoped to navigate “complex security and logistical challenges” to deliver enough to cover the needs of 13-million to 19-million people.

The UN World Food Programme said it would continue to analyse the situation over the next six months and after the planting and harvest season.

Omer said he feared it might now be too late to plant, a view echoed by three other farmers. Although fighting had not directly affected their farms, a central problem was a lack of financing and unfulfilled promises for credit or in-kind support from banks, Omer added.

As fighting between Sudan's army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a large paramilitary faction, that broke out on April 15 tore through the capital Khartoum, banks were looted and had to limit operations.

Though most agricultural areas of Sudan are relatively calm, supply chains centred on the capital have been widely disrupted. Some warehouses for inputs such as fertilisers, seeds and pesticides have been plundered, according to eyewitnesses.

In Al Gezira, farmers have been struggling financially for years as Sudan has sunk deeper into an economic crisis. They now face challenges paying back loans to get new funding, said farming co-operative leader Mohamed Balla, adding that just a small proportion of land had been prepared for planting.

‘Huge risk’

Elsewhere in Sudan, farmers are grappling with a similar plight.

Mohamed Ajab Siddig, a farmer in the Sennar and Blue and White Nile states, said he was finding it difficult to get funding for inputs to plant about 10,000 feddans (4,200ha) with sorghum, sesame and sunflower.

He usually relies on revenue from selling crops harvested from the previous season but the conflict has made that near impossible as the market is centralised in Khartoum.

In May, Sudan’s cabinet issued a directive to continue preparations for the summer planting season and clear obstacles that would hinder the process. This included defining areas targeted for the summer planting season, as well as developing a plan for providing inputs.

Siddig, like some other farmers, was promised seeds and fuel by the state-linked Agricultural Bank, but as of early July he was still waiting.

There was a high chance he would not get the support, he said. “I have a 60’-70% chance of stopping farming this year because it’s a huge risk, not a small risk.”

Those farmers able to acquire financing report steep hikes in prices of inputs including seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and fuel, said four of the farmers and the World Food Programme (WFP).

“Fuel is sold on the black market and prices went up 300%. Unfortunately, all of this indicates the failure of the planting season,” said Mahdi Ahmed, a North Kordofan-based farmer.

In parts of the western regions of the country, where aid groups say food stocks are running low, Ahmed and another farmer, Mohamed Abdallah from North Darfur, said farmers were robbed by gangs that included soldiers from the RSF as they tried to reach their fields.

“They say 'Thank God for your safe return. Drop your stuff here and go',” said Abdallah. “People are reliant on their farming. They eat what they grow.”

The RSF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Food supplies dwindling

Delays have also been reported in bigger, irrigated commercial farms that produce exports as well as sorghum and millet, said Adam Yao, Sudan spokesperson for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“Any disruption ... will have huge impact on the economy of the country but also on the livelihood of Sudanese people,” he said.

Food and commodity imports have been impeded by the war and financial collapse, according to three industry sources.

Humanitarian access has been limited by fighting, looting and bureaucratic restrictions. Aid agencies have accused both sides of hampering relief, including the delivery of food. Both sides have said publicly that they have facilitated aid, and accuse the other side of impeding it.

In Gezira State, which has received more than 169,000 displaced people from Khartoum, shortages of some food items have been reported and the World Food Programme is providing support for the first time.

“This is stretching the basic resources in that area,” said WFP's Leni Kinzli.

Aid agency Islamic Relief reports that some farmers have resorted to eating sorghum and millet seed stocks, depleting the amount available for planting, with the situation worsening particularly in Darfur, Kordofan, White Nile and Sennar.

Those who have remained in Khartoum state face shortages and rising prices as cash dries up, and looting, store closures and supply-chain problems impact supplies.

Two residents said all the bakeries in their neighbourhoods had closed.

Emad Adil of the Omdurman Emergency Room, a volunteer group, said that the price of a loaf had jumped more than 130% to 70 Sudanese pounds ($0.12), while Razan Bahaa, who lives in Bahri, said it had quadrupled to 200 pounds ($0.33) there.


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