Farmers may see failing harvests in Sudan amid hunger concerns

Farmers on Sudan’s Gezira Scheme’s fertile clay plains would ordinarily have started tilling the soil weeks ago before planting rows of sorghum, peanuts, sesame, and other cash crops.

Instead, swaths of the 8,800 square kilometer (3,400 square mile) agricultural project remain neglected in a country plagued by dramatically growing hunger.

According to farmers who talked to media, the government, which has been cut off from billions of dollars in foreign finance since a coup in October, failed to buy their wheat earlier this year as promised.

That, they claim, means they don’t have the funds to start a fresh crop right now.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has exacerbated the situation even further, pushing fertilizer and gasoline prices to new highs.

Farmers believe this puts current and future seasons in peril in an unstable nation where the humanitarian situation has deteriorated and officials are unsure how they can manage to finance more expensive food imports.

The finance ministry did not respond directly to the farmers’ assertions concerning wheat purchases, but told media that it was working to get the funds.

The ministry said in a statement on Tuesday that it had committed to purchasing up to 300,000 tonnes of wheat and 200,000 tonnes of sorghum, totaling more than $300 million, and that it was seeking financing from the central bank to do so.

More than 20 farmers were interviewed by media at the Gezira Scheme, a massive irrigation project just south of Khartoum’s city. All of them regarded their situation as dire, and the majority of them stated they feared bankruptcy and possibly prison if they didn’t pay their obligations.

One, Nazar Abdallah, claimed he took out loans expecting the government would buy his wheat at the agreed-upon price of 43,000 Sudanese pounds (about $75.40) per sack.

Hundreds of those 100 kg grain bags, which are presently being held beneath a leaking roof, were supposed to be sold in March.

He is concerned that if his harvest fails, he would be unable to repay his loan. He pointed at the holes in the ceiling and added, “If it rains, I’ll be sent directly to jail, no question.”

Gadaref, the eastern state where majority of the country’s traditional grain, sorghum, is farmed, has similar issues.

“We pay exorbitant costs for fertilizer and gasoline, only to be unable to sell our produce because there is no market. We are being impoverished by the government “According to a sorghum farmer who wished to remain nameless in order to avoid becoming involved in politics,

“The summer season is on the verge of collapsing. It’s possible that fifty to seventy percent of us will not plant. As a result, the food supply is in jeopardy “Another Gezira farmer, Ahmed Abdelmagid, explained.

The plight of farmers predates the coup. They are linked to an economic crisis that began under previous President Omar al-Bashir, transitional government subsidy changes, and global cost pressures that began before the Ukraine war.

Farmers said that the state-owned Agricultural Bank, which has historically aided farmers and purchased their wheat for strategic reserves, neglected to provide fertilizer and seeds as prices soared last year.

Requests for comment were not returned by the Agricultural Bank, the Sudanese national bank, or the agricultural ministry.

According to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report released in March, the cost of gasoline for farmers increased by more than 6,500 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year. Farmers reduced fertilizer use when the price of fertilizer, which was generally given under the wheat purchase agreement, increased by 800 percent.

In addition, the research blamed irregular rainfall, insect infestations, violence, and irrigation challenges for a 35 percent reduction in output of Sudan’s three main commodities – wheat, sorghum, and millet – this year.

Sudan is experiencing an unusual sorghum shortfall this year, according to the FAO.

Just a year ago, the transitional administration was out on the road holding roadshows to pitch investors on Sudan’s vast untapped agricultural potential, as the economy began to open up following Bashir’s ouster in 2019 during widespread demonstrations.

The coup, which ended a turbulent power-sharing system between civilians and the military, put a stop to its operations. Economic activity has slowed as a result of political gridlock and anti-military protests.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme, the number of people in Sudan suffering crisis or emergency levels of hunger, which precede famine, will treble this year to 18 million, out of a population of 46 million.

Sudan’s food security concerns are likely to worsen.

Sudan purchased 818,000 tonnes of wheat in January-March, three times higher than in the same period in 2021, according to central bank estimates.

Though the local wheat crop only accounts for a small portion of consumption, FAO delegate Babagana Ahmadu says the government subsidy for wheat producers provides a vital, albeit unsustainable, backbone for agricultural activities.

“Without it, everything will spiral out of control,” he continued.

During the forthcoming summer season, Abdallah and other Gezira farmers would generally plant sorghum and other crucial export crops using the money from the government’s wheat purchases.

However, the governor of the Gezira Scheme, Omar Marzoug, stated that neither government or private funding was available.

Sudan’s military leadership has stated that the problem is being addressed. Farmers have criticized a recent purchase announcement, claiming that the terms are too restrictive.

They are waiting for cash, selling tiny amounts at the market cost of roughly 28,000 pounds ($49.12) per sack to make ends meet because they are cash-strapped. Farm equipment is sitting idle.

If money is not forthcoming this month, the farmer in Gadaref said he and his neighbors will likely limit their planting of crucial export crops like sesame by up to 80%.

“Without a fundamental shift, I predict severe issues in the following crops,” said Hussein Sulieman, an agriculture professor at the University of Gadaref. “I also don’t anticipate any major changes.”

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