Sudan/Dispatch from Darfur - assisting farmers through "seed fairs"

Originally published
A "haboob" is swirling outside. Gusts of wind fling grains of sand in every direction - into my burning eyes and across my laptop screen and keyboard. Fortunately this latest haboob has held off until dusk to begin its sporadic blowing.

I arrive by UN helicopter in Kulbus, a dusty northern community in West Darfur - a state in Sudan where CRS provides emergency assistance to 150,000 Darfuris. My timing couldn't be better; A CRS-sponsored seed fair kicked off at 8 a.m. in the village market.

When we arrive, a rainbow of colors greets us on our right where hundreds of women sit in a circle waiting for their turn to register for seed vouchers. To our left, dozens of small traders are setting up their bags and pouring out piles of seeds to attract the farmers. Children amble through the aisles, watching the action and swatting away opportunistic donkeys trying to sneak a nibble.

Over the next 10 hours, a dozen hardworking CRS staff serve around 1,250 farming households and 50 traders. Collaborating with village elders, CRS selected these eligible families based on need, giving priority to vulnerable and female-headed households. A few weeks earlier, a similar tool fair let the families purchase needed tools, including hoes, spades and rakes.

"Each farming household receives about $25 worth of seed and tool voucher tickets," explains Belihu Negesse, CRS' head of office and food security manager for West Darfur. "The registered traders accept the CRS vouchers and then turn them in for cash at our office in El Geneina." With support from the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), CRS teams will hold seed and tool fairs for 10,000 farm households in the Northern Corridor of West Darfur this planting season.

The current stability in Kulbus allows households to farm once again, but many need some help getting started. CRS seed fairs enable farming households to purchase around 44 pounds of seeds, which is about half the seeds required to sow an average family plot of five acres. Farmers rely on their own resources and support from relatives to plant the remainder of their fields.

"During conflict, markets and trade are also affected," adds Mohamed Ibrahim, a CRS agriculture recovery assistant. "Some traders - and even farmers with small excesses - can't sell their seeds because of insecurity and the resulting difficulty of movement." CRS' seed and tool fairs support entrepreneurs in the local market, boosting the area's economy while providing farmers with a diverse choice of seeds.

One female trader, Aum El Zain Mohammed, wishes that prices were higher, but she likes the simplicity of the voucher system.

"I will use part of the money to support my children who are already in school. And I'll use part of the money to hire other people to help me cultivate, because this is something I can't manage to do all by myself," Aum El Zain says, burying her ankle into a pile of sesame seeds. The bottom half of her right leg is gouged by bullet wounds, and her son's right leg is similarly scarred. She shares that many of her family members died in earlier area attacks.

But Aum El Zain isn't letting her past troubles keep her down. "I also plan to buy some sheep to sell and raise," she adds, noting that her husband sells livestock to help support the farm. "Now life is very good. Not like before."

And for now, the dust has stopped blowing outside my door.

Debbie DeVoe, CRS' Regional Information Officer for East Africa, is currently visiting projects in Sudan to share stories about the people CRS is assisting.