South Sudan is banking on oil monies to revive its stalled agriculture and save its population from perennial dependence on food imports and relief supplies.
The new plan, announced last week by President Salva Kiir, seeks to tap into the earnings from oil and reinvest it into agricultural production.
It is part of efforts for the country, ravaged by civil conflict since 2013, to return to normalcy, according to officials.
Agriculture and Food Security Minister Onyoti Adigo says his office is first reviewing a document called the Master Plan as it awaits payments from oil to kick-start the year-long pilot project that may include subsidised supplies from the government.
“I just notified all my ministry’s staff to immediately prepare a work plan in terms of machineries, fuel for farmers and quality seeds. We are going to prepare all these things and present them to the president so that all people can engage and boost agriculture sector earlier this year,” said Onyoti.
The country expects to form a government of national unity by February 22, after initial deadlines were postponed twice. Onyoti did admit the new administration and subsequent peace could be the necessary catalyst for the project to mature.
“The coming of peace will be a blessing and, if I continue to serve in this ministry, I will push for the country to achieve its priorities within two years. We will have to produce our own food and avoid importation of food from the neighbouring countries.” he said
The project though faces other challenges: South Sudan, according to the World Bank, is one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world and its oil revenues account for 40 per cent of its GDP.
It means the oil monies are also needed for security budgets as well as the actual implementation of the peace agreement, which requires retraining and re-equipment of forces.
According to the ministry of petroleum, South Sudan produces more than 175,000 barrels per day.
At the current oil prices, the government gets over $5.5 million per day or more than $165 million per month.
Also in July and August last year, South Sudan National Revenue Authority announced that it collected $6.5 million from non-oil revenues.
Previously, funds released for projects were allegedly stolen or diverted to non-state use, according to a recent investigation by the Sentry, founded by American Actor George Clooney.
The agriculture ministry, however, says the Kiir’s directives may need to be followed first.
“We don’t need to count our eggs before they hatch. We have seen several scenarios where the council of minister approve monies but my ministry didn’t get them.
“The president should take strict decision which requires the finance ministry to release those funds so that we can implement this plan successfully” said Onyoti.
The announcement came several weeks after the World Food Programme said South Sudan will face famine in the next 30 days if humanitarian donors don’t immediately intervene by fundraising at least $100 million for a speedy aid delivery.
In September last year, the government and three UN agencies warned that more than half of the population—about seven million—in South Sudan were food insecure due to insecurity that forced many to be displaced without livelihoods.
Michael Wani, the Executive Director of Okay Africa Foundation—a local non-profit organisation that advocates for self-reliance for the youth and women—said the pledge was welcome but called for accountability.
“People have been asking where the oil money goes and nobody has been able to answer that question. Today, I am glad the president has spoken openly [and promised] to use the oil money to develop agriculture,” he said.
Wani, however, called on use of accurate and transparent mechanisms to boost the agricultural projects such as funding of legal local famers associations or community farmers’ networks.
Huge agricultural potential
Since 2015, agriculture was severely neglected despite the huge agricultural potential South Sudan has with sufficient arable land. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), only about 5 per cent of South Sudan is cultivated due to the civil war that started in 2013, and inadequate investment in the agriculture sector.
Last week, during a visit to his farm situated in Luri County, Jubek State, President Kiir admitted lack of proper investment of earnings from oil had contributed to food insecurity.
“We want to use the oil money in the agriculture so that we produce enough food for the people of South Sudan and surplus that can go to the market. This is the only thing we can do to come out of this situation,” he said during a visit where he was accompanied by his First Vice President Taban Deng Gai.
President Kiir donated 1,000 tractors in 2015 to the states to implement his pledges of improving and boosting food security but many of the tractors were reportedly personalised by state governors and government officials.