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Sudan lags potential as “bread basket”

Adam Mohamed
Sudan is often described as the bread basket of the Arab world but many people face food shortages despite the country’s abundant natural resources.
8.07.2014  |  Khartoum
مزارع في دنقلا، ولاية الشمالية، 2011.
مزارع في دنقلا، ولاية الشمالية، 2011.

Almost half of Sudan’s land is suitable for agriculture but the sector is beset by violence, desertification and a lack of investment.

The World Bank estimates that Sudan has 106.9 million hectares of agricultural terrain. Over the past ten years, the production of crops and meat played a pivotal role in Sudan’s economic and social development.

* Agricultural lands include the arable lands which are cultivated with permanent crops or covered by permanent pastures.

* Both arable lands and those cultivated with permanent crops constitute 7.2% and 0.1% respectively of the total country lands, which means that most of the agricultural lands in Sudan are permanent pastures (38.4%).

* Percentage of irrigated agricultural lands, which are cultivated and intentionally watered lands, including those irrigated with regular inundation, amounts to 1.4% of the total arable lands.

Source: World BankBut agriculture’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has significantly declined. During the 1960s, it made up 52 percent whereas this percentage decreased to 38 percent in 1998, according to the organisation Open Oil, and has further dropped to 28 percent in 2012, according to the World Bank.

The discovery of oil in the early 1999 contributed to the decline of farming. So-called black gold provided a useful income source, but also lead to the neglect of other sectors particularly agriculture.

Numerous agricultural projects have been affected by this neglect. Instead, the cash generated by oil meant that the country could afford to import the necessary supplies from abroad.

Importing wheat and flour cost around one billion US dollars annually, costs which were covered by oil revenue. This was a shift for Sudanese food habits, especially in major cities, which used to be dependent on locally grown maize, sorghum and millet, but now rely on wheat. Difficulties arose from this dependency when secession cut off Sudan’s access to oil extraction, mainly located in South Sudan.

Meanwhile, agricultural production in the fertile lands of Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile has been halted by conflicts between rebels and the government. Desertification due to rising temperatures since the mid-1980s has also hampered production.

Conflicts have impeded everyday life, as well as people’s ability to be self-sufficient. Thousands of displaced people are dependent on external support and food aid and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned of a possible famine in some areas of Sudan.

More than 3,000,000 people suffer food insecurity in the country due to the increased rate of displacement and conflict in Darfur in addition to the influx of refugees from the South,” the FAO reported in April.

Sudan is a forgotten crisis which is going from bad to worse.”
Abdi Adan Jama
FAO spokesperson Abdi Adan Jama says: Sudan is a forgotten crisis which is going from bad to worse. It is urgent to help the shepherds and farmers to reduce any further deterioration in the food crisis.”

In additional to regional violence, the FAO blamed food shortages on price rises for grains and crop failures.

Darfur is heavily dependent on traditional agriculture, which provides the basic needs of citizens in Jebel Marra, in West Darfur State. It is one of Sudan’s most fertile areas and enjoys a Mediterranean climate, but intractable violence has curtailed agriculture production.

South Kordofan, once one of Sudan’s largest sources of maize, has become one of the largest areas of relief operations in the history. The long self-sufficient region has huge automated enterprises to produce cotton, but the war has destroyed all cultivation, large and small scale.

In the light of current problems, the state is considering a new strategy to address the food crisis. It has appealed to revive several major projects and finance the so-called micro finance farming projects.

Ahead of the Arab summit held in Kuwait in January 2013, Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir introduced a food security initiative, which aimed to lure Arab investors to Sudanese agriculture.

The state is counting on the Gezira Scheme to solve the food crisis.”
Othman Semsaah Ahmed Sheikh
Sudanese Vice-President Hasabo Abdelrahman has advised the country to focus on the Gezira Scheme, which was Sudan’s largest agricultural project prior to the oil boom. During the 1970s the Gezira Scheme provided food security, but it was neglected when the current regime came to power in 1989. General Manager of the Gezira Scheme Othman Semsaah Ahmed Sheikh says: The state is counting on the Gezira Scheme to solve the food crisis.”

Omar Ali, Head of the Economic Affairs Committee of the parliament, adds that a plan is available to reduce the shortage of cereals by planting 550,000 feddan of maize and wheat in the Gezira Scheme taking into consideration that the cultivation of grains is important for food security and bridging the deflation gap”.

Despite its swathes of fertile lands, Sudan is still threatened by food shortages, due to a range of factors. These include the government, which after 26 years in power, has failed to secure food, partly due to the spread of wars and conflicts in various regions of the country.

Sudan’s livestock – 2012 (data refers to Sudan at earlier time – some/all of these figures include South Sudan):

- 752,000 donkeys
- 4,751,000 camels
- 41,917,000 cows
- 44,000,000 goats
- 52,500,000 sheep
- 75,500 beehives

Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture OrganizationAnd, even if the conflicts end soon, there are signs that Sudan will not benefit from its large agricultural potential because of economic constraints. Agriculture needs capital, even when crops survive on rain water. Empty state coffers, however, make investment impossible. Sudan’s government, meanwhile, often blames the 10-year-old economic embargo imposed by the United States for the failure of development, since it prevents imports of modern agriculture machinery.

Sudan’s various areas have an unequal distribution of resources. For instance, northern and central Sudan contain vast lands which could profit from investment in mechanised farming due to their proximity of the River Nile including Gezira and the Northern State, where agricultural business is concentrated.

Other parts of the country will not be able to obtain food, even if conflicts cease. Dependent on rainfalls they face the ongoing risk of a weak harvests or failed crops. This applies to regions like Kordofan, Darfur, the Blue Nile and eastern states, especially Gedaref and Kassala, which widely cultivate maize and cereals.

This harsh reality, combined with violence and a lack of investment, means that Sudan is a long way off living up to its reputation as the ‘breadbasket of the Arab world’, meaning that many people will continue to struggle to access food.