Virginia State University, USAID Pitch In To Help South Sudan Grow

After decades of civil war and millions of deaths, thousands of people took to the streets of South Sudan on July 9, 2011, to celebrate their first day as an independent nation.

But while the newly christened citizens were jubilant, some moved to tears, the celebration offered a sharp contrast to the challenges facing them. The country has one of the highest maternal mortality rates and one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. With high levels of illiteracy, a weak economy, endemic malaria and a population desirous of rapid change, South Sudan is facing a number of hurdles in its quest for prosperity.

“The country is trying to [set] up a government, and we’re trying to help them do it,” says Kevin Mullally, South Sudan mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The government agency is tasked with administering civil aid around the world. “The Obama administration has made food security one of their primary objectives.”

USAID thinks that agriculture is the key to improving and diversifying South Sudan’s economy and awarded a $1.47 million grant to four universities last March to develop an agricultural plan to implement in the new country. Virginia State University and Virginia Tech have partnered to help the University of Juba and the Catholic University of Sudan develop a curriculum to teach South Sudanese farmers through community outreach.

“VSU has a unique talent that we can bring to the table,” says Dr. Wondi Mersie, associate dean and director of research of VSU’s School of Agriculture. Mersie, an Ethiopian-born researcher, says that VSU has done a lot of research on sorghum and goats. Sorghum, a crop native to the area, can be used by the South Sudanese for food, fodder and even housing in some areas. Goats are important for the region because they require few resources to breed and produce milk.

“Since they can be used for both meat and dairy, goats come in very handy,” Mersie says.

In August, Mersie and VSU colleague Dr. Laban Rutto joined four researchers from Virginia Tech on a 10-day trip to South Sudan. The researchers met with professors from the University of Juba and the Catholic University of Sudan to get a better idea of what is needed in the area.

“We’re building a plan for small farms based on our experience,” Mersie says, adding that he hopes the next stage of the program will include a student exchange program. “This is a very important part of our plan.”

During the war, the University of Juba moved to Khartoum in the north. The institution has since moved back to Juba, but many instructors decided not to return, creating a need for instructors in Juba. The grant will aid the universities in setting up new laboratories and farms.

Because most agriculture in South Sudan is subsistence farming, much of the food the people consume is imported from surrounding countries, driving up food prices. One of the feathers in South Sudan’s cap is its massive amount of fertile land, the majority of which has yet to be cultivated.

“Throughout the war it was very difficult to do anything but subsistence agriculture,” Mullally says. “There’s not any place to buy fertilizer, seeds or farming implements. … As farmers look to develop larger plots of land, they’ll need machination.”

The roads leading to a better South Sudan aren’t easy, and even roads themselves are hard to come by.

“The country is about the size of France and doesn’t have a single paved road,” Mullally explains. USAID is building the Juba-Nimule Road, but, before the organization could undertake the task, a significant amount of time was spent de-mining the area.

“I think the whole region will benefit from South Sudan in an extraordinary way,” says Rajakumari Jandhyala, deputy associate administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Africa. “It has 8 million people and incredible land mass. … We think Africa is going to have great potential in the next 50 years.”

Jandhyala says one of the benefits of South Sudan developing so recently is that it can “leapfrog in technology” by skipping landlines and going straight to mobile phones.

“They’re a population that has never had an opportunity to develop,” Mullally says. “We want to help the country put in the institutions that will be able to sustainably develop capacity.”

“They need to develop their services quickly if they’re going to be a viable state,” he adds.