Fighting food shortage in South Sudan by planting rice

In southern Sudan, rice proves to be a more viable solution

Action Against Hunger has served beneficiaries in the swampy upper Nile region of southern Sudan since 2001-one of Africa's most underdeveloped areas. Its markets are poorly developed, it has few facilities for health or education, and its lack of infrastructure makes improving the region difficult. The areas we've served, including Toch, Old Fangak and Nyadin, are inaccessible by road. You can fly there or you can walk there, but the only other transportation option is boating among the local villages. Few humanitarian organizations operate in the area.

Floods along the upper Nile during 2005 slashed the annual sorghum harvest-the principal local crop, in fact virtually the only crop-by more than 80%. Erratic rainfall and pest infestation in 2006 again reduced the crop by 28% from the usual harvest. These meager yields combined with limited livelihood opportunities, poor market access, and a diet lacking in diversity all contributed to serious food shortages and a rise in hunger. Fish are plentiful in the area, but by themselves they provide an incomplete and inadequate diet.

Rice to the Rescue

Our team decided to try introducing the community to rice, which can grow in swampy ground at any time of the year when sufficient water is present. A pilot project was launched in Toch where plentiful water could provide two harvests a year. This would potentially increase household cereal stocks and reduce annual community-wide hunger that can run from March (when stocks of sorghum are typically used up) to July (when the next sorghum crop is harvested).

Rice wasn't totally foreign in Toch. It occasionally reached local markets as an import, but it was expensive and exotic, and village cooks weren't sure what to do with it.

Nonetheless, we found local farmers willing to participate in the project. In consultation with local chiefs and the southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, we chose 20 participants who were currently farmers, were willing to work as a group, were eager to try something new, and had no objections to sharing their experiences with other farmers. In the end, the number of participants varied during the project, but we always had enough laborers to make the experiment work.

We began by importing a rice specialist who helped train the volunteers in cultivation, covering such topics as land preparation, wetland management, paddy planting, irrigation, and construction of dikes (to keep sufficient water within the farmed acreage while also preventing floods from overwhelming the fields). Altogether we planted 48 different kinds of rice to determine which grew hardily and which were preferred as food among the villagers. Our team also held cooking demonstrations to show villagers how to prepare the rice, which they accepted without resistance.

In addition, we organized an association of the participating farmers who wanted to continue farming rice in the future.

Based on the pilot project, we estimate that rice grown in the upper Nile region of southern Sudan will yield 280% more grain than sorghum harvests from similar acreage. This will not only feed the farmers and their families throughout the year but also provide excess to sell in local markets and increase the farmers' incomes.

Our experiment was a success. Now we're seeking other communities where the same solution will help solve chronic hunger.