The Nordic Africa Institute


Researcher: Agriculture key for post-conflict Sudan

Scenes from Al Obaied Crop Market, North Kordofan Workers sort, repack and ship Gum Arabic lots. Photo: Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank

Scenes from Al Obaied Crop Market, North Kordofan, where workers sort, repack and ship gum arabic, a form of natural gum that is extracted from the sap of the acacia tree. Sudan has potential to not only feed its own population, but also become a successful exporter of agricultural products, according to NAI Senior Researcher Abu Hatab. Photo: Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank

Date • 7 Jul 2023

The ongoing conflict has aggravated food insecurity for many of Sudan’s 45 million people. But Sudan’s difficulties in feeding its population began long before the violence erupted. To alleviate the situation and build resilient food systems the country’s future leaders must focus on the long-neglected agriculture sector, says NAI Senior Researcher Assem Abu Hatab.

The armed conflict which started in Sudan’s capital Khartoum in April, after the country’ two most powerful generals began battling for power, has since spread to other parts of the country. All efforts to stop the fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces, the country’s military, and the Rapid Support Forces, an independent armed force, have failed.

The conflict has shattered access to food, water, health care, and other essential services. According to a UN World Food Programme (WFP) report in June, at least 2.5 million people are expected to become acutely food insecure in the next three to six months due to supply chain disruptions and the subsequent increase in food prices. The greatest food insecurity is expected in the regions of West Darfur, West Kordofan, Blue Nile, Red Sea, and North Darfur.

Assem Abu Hatab.

Assem Abu Hatab. Photo: Mattias Sköld

“From a food security perspective, the timing of this conflict could not have been worse. Even before the violence erupted, the country was in a dire situation in relation to ensuring sufficient and sustainable access to food for its population”, Abu Hatab says.

The availability of food was seriously affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, since Sudan imports most of its cereals from the two warring countries. It further pushed up prices on food, which were already on a high level after the Covid-19 pandemic. In September 2022, harvests in Sudan were destroyed when the country was hit by the worst flooding in three decades.

In the midst of a crisis, the utmost priority must be to ensure the survival and well-being of individuals, Abu Hatab says.

“It is crucial to strengthen social protection systems and ensure food security for the most vulnerable, by increasing their purchasing power or by directly providing food through government or community-based programmes.”

Since the start of the conflict in April, disruption and damage to transportation routes has affected the food supply. Those who are able to produce food often cannot access markets. Military controls have closed many cities and few producers are willing to risk travel.

But Sudan’s food insecurity problems began long before the conflict erupted. They also go deeper than the recent multiple shocks of the war in Ukraine, flooding and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Abu Hatab.

Several interlinked factors have contributed to the recurring difficulties, says Abu Hatab. Limited investment, poor infrastructure, inadequate technology and lack of modernisation have made it hard to meet a growing food demand. Protracted periods of conflict and political instability have disrupted agricultural activities, particularly in regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. Sudan is also vulnerable to natural disasters, including droughts, floods, and desertification, challenges which have been exacerbated by climate change.

Abu Hatab also points to strategic decisions by Sudanese leaders in the 1980s, when Sudan, like many other developing countries at the time, began to steer the national economy away from agriculture towards industry and service.

“Food prices were low at the time. The agriculture sector was not perceived as a financially rewarding industry or attractive option for public and private investment”, says Abu Hatab.

Since then, agriculture has steadily decreased as a share of Sudan’s economy. In the 1980s, it accounted for 30-40 percent, currently it accounts for around 5 percent, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. The proportion varies, but on average African countries allocate at least 10 percent, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

To build a resilient food system, the Sudanese government must start investing in agriculture again, Abu Hatab says.

The yield from some agricultural crops could be at least twice as much, in cereal crops, for example, but this is not being achieved, according to Abu Hatab.

“It’s about know-how. It's about technology. It's about adopting modern agricultural practices. All these things can be done in the medium to long run. They are necessary to improve the resilience of the food production system.”

A second necessary measure to promote food security, Abu Hatab outlines, is to diversify the sources of imports. Sudan’s own agricultural production of cereals only covers around 60 percent of consumption, according to the WFP.

“Concentrating your imports on Russia, and Ukraine, and a very limited number of other countries, leaves Sudan vulnerable when something happens. A conflict is one thing, but you can also be affected by a disease outbreak, some kinds of insects or other issues. Diversification of imports is very important.”

Sudan has potential to feed more people than its own population, and could be an exporter of agricultural products, according to Abu Hatab.

Unlike its neighbour Egypt, which relies almost completely on Nile water flowing from Ethiopia, Sudan has access to several major water sources. It also has plenty of fertile agricultural land and human capital – across the nation there are communities whose experience in agriculture reaches back hundreds of years.

Given close links to its northern and southern neighbours – geographically, culturally and politically – Sudan is also well positioned to export to African markets as the African Continental Free Trade Area develops, Abu Hatab observes.

“Agriculture is a unique sector that cannot be managed solely based on economic principles. It's not like the manufacturing sectors that follow a straightforward economic formula. Agriculture encompasses a complex interplay of natural resources, environmental factors and socioeconomic dynamics. At times, non-economic factors hold even greater importance than the economic.”

Abu Hatab thinks this complexity and the slowness of building agricultural capacity, along with the fact that food prices remained low for decades, explain why many developing countries have invested so little in the sector.

“Investment in agriculture takes a long time before you can reap the fruits. If you think about the service sector, you just build some hotels and provide facilities for tourists. Those results you can see quickly. But for agriculture, it's a long-term investment.”

TEXT: Mattias Sköld