War hits sowing season in Sudan breadbasket, fuelling famine fears

War hits sowing season in Sudan breadbasket, fuelling famine fears
Women walk at the Souk Sitta (Market Six) in the south of Khartoum/ AFP


In past years Mohammed Haroun readily found work on Sudanese farms but this year he is left empty-handed as agribusinesses, starved of cash by fighting in Sudan, leave their land fallow.

Like hundreds of farm labourers from across Sudan, Haroun made his way to Gedaref state, the country's breadbasket, at the first sign of rain, which heralds the start of the growing season.

But this year -- with the country embroiled in brutal fighting between warring generals -- no one was expecting them.

The state's large, mechanised farms are not taking on workers, as a cash crunch hits their finances, jeopardising a harvest that normally meets 40 percent of Sudan's grain needs and fuelling fears of famine.

Haroun makes the annual journey for work from his home region of Kordofan, hundreds of kilometres to the west.

"In the past, I would never be waiting for more than a day," he told AFP, lying on the untilled soil with his possessions around him.

"I've been here for five days now with no job offer and I've run out of money. I don't know where my next meal is coming from."

Around him, the rain has already started falling on the fallow fields -- meaning that it is now probably already too late to sow a crop this year.


- Saddled with debt -


One bad season could spell disaster in a country where one in three inhabitants were in need of aid even before a power struggle between rival generals erupted into all-out fighting on April 15.

More than 80 percent of Sudan's workforce is employed in agriculture, which generates 35 to 40 percent of gross domestic product, according to the United Nations.

Mirghani Ali sells farm supplies including seedlings, fertilisers and pesticides, and has never seen anything like this season.

"We should be overwhelmed with orders right now, but here we are at the end of May, and demand is incredibly low," he said.

For Mohammed Abdelkarim, who cultivates 10,000 acres (over 4,000 hectares) of corn, cotton and sunflowers, the cause is clear: financing has been cut off.

"Banks headquartered in Khartoum have not responded to requests since mid-April," when the fighting began.

"And even if financing does come through, we'll need time to get seedlings, and we don't know if we'll have access to fuel to power our machines."

Abdelkarim said some farms in the state were already in debt after being forced to leave last year's wheat crop to rot in the fields as the cash-strapped government failed to honour promises to purchase their harvest.

The central bank announced in May it would open lines of credit for farmers associated with local cooperatives, and government ministers -- who still hold press conferences despite the fighting -- assured the public that the sowing season is not at risk.

Although Sudan's production of staple crops -- sorghum, millet and wheat -- rose 45 percent in 2022 compared with the previous year, it still met less than half of domestic needs, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In the past, the balance has been covered largely by imports from Russia and Ukraine, but supplies have been hit since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbour in February last year.

Many Sudanese have been left unable to afford even basic staples, as world food prices have soared.


- Unprepared -


"Transportation disruptions, market devastation and the absence of financing... will have catastrophic impacts on the food security of the people of Sudan and the surrounding region," said the head of the Khartoum-based Arab Organisation for Agriculture Development, Ibrahim al-Dakhiri.

"Severed supply lines have led to the complete destruction of poultry production, which is mostly concentrated in Khartoum," he said.

Although some farmers have sown crops like maize, millet or oilseeds in areas spared by the fighting, they are doing so "with an unpreparedness never before seen in Sudan", he added.

Preparing for the rainy season is essential in a country where 95 percent of cultivated land is rain-fed, according to the FAO.

Farmers in Gedaref found themselves facing the first rains "with no seeds or fuel, and now they can't work their land", farmer Hussein Ibrahim told AFP.

With roads cut off by crossfire, trade at a standstill and processing factories razed or looted, agribusinesses face an uphill battle, prompting some heavyweight investors to walk away.

One of the largest actors in the Sudanese economy, Haggar Group, which used to provide work for thousands of farm labourers, recently threw in the towel.

In a letter dated May 29, employees were notified that the company was "suspending operations" and letting all of them go.