Think starting a business in the US is hard? Try setting up a sustainable enterprise in the developing world, where capital is extremely limited and health problems, floods, droughts and civil war can impede even minimal growth. This blog post is Part 2 in a series about the challenges of starting and sustaining micro-enterprises in the countries where Five Talents works. Read Part 1 here.
We recently wrote about South Sudan's potential to become a breadbasket for East Africa. Here, we talk with agricultural consultant Robin Denney about the nuts and bolts of setting up a farming micro-enterprise in South Sudan. Denney recently returned to the US after working with the Episcopal Church of Sudan to train and assist local farmers.
How do micro-entrepreneurs typically get their start in farming in South Sudan?
There's the buying and selling side of agriculture – that's often where people get started because it's a little safer than [farming]. You buy a sack of onions, which costs a certain amount, and then you can sell them in groups of three for a certain price. So in that way, it's simple math. You do make a lot of money if you're able to get enough money to buy a bag of onions and, in turn, sell it. Onions are really popular because everyone needs onions.
What if, say, a husband and a wife want to get into farming? Where might they begin?
Some people might start out with vegetables because tomatoes are so expensive on the market and people do enjoy buying tomatoes. Vegetables [are also] more intensive – you wouldn't have a very large field of tomatoes. You would have just a small plot [because] it takes a lot more work because you have to be out there tending them. Then there's higher investment crops like pineapples or tree crops. Pineapples and bananas are easier than tree crops because they only take two years. But you have to buy the actual plants – they can't grow from seeds. (Photo: soya beans in Abara, South Sudan)
We sometimes hear stories about farmers in other regions of the world who use their microloans to purchase fertilizer. What's the soil like in South Sudan?
The soil is quite fertile – you can't really speak so broadly about soil. But compared to other nations in the area, South Sudan has incredibly fertile soil and rain-fed agriculture. But that fertility can be very easily used up. Because of the heat and rainfall, the organic matter breaks down really quickly. In order to maintain the fertility, you really have to take care of the soil.
Is that a big challenge?
That is really the No. 1 thing we look at in agricultural training – the methods for increasing soil fertility and water holding capacity of the soil. You don't have to spend money on fertilizer, but you are going to have to spend more time. That's really the No. 1 problem that farmers have. When we remove a crop from a field, there are nutrients in that crop that have come from the soil. So if you continue removing the crop without putting anything back, then eventually your soil is going to [lose its fertility]. [Farmers can solve this problem] by using animal manure, mulching, composting, and rotating.
How realistic is it to think that South Sudan can become a breadbasket for East Africa?
Probably 95 percent of South Sudanese are subsistence farmers or livestock keepers who get everything for themselves. I met so many people who really felt that agriculture could be the base of the economy – or another base of the economy, besides oil. And that South Sudan could be the breadbasket for East Africa in terms of producing enough food to be a major exporter of agricultural products. It was exciting to be there at that time. Agriculture is generally looked down upon as the work of the poor in a lot of places. So to have that vision of agriculture as something that could really drive an economy is exciting.
Much like Five Talents and its work with savings group members, you take a holistic approach to your work with farmers. Can you discuss your philosophy?
What we were trying to do with the agricultural programs is help people to see that they are beloved in the eyes of God and that God is calling them to a higher purpose, even within what they are doing. We [wanted to] help people to see that God has anointed them as someone special, a caretaker of creation, who is supporting their family and the community... That is just so critical because it changes the way we live our lives and gives us the motivation we need in order to do these things that are kind of scary and hard, like taking a business loan or trying new agricultural techniques. These are risky things that require effort. You really need to have that motivation in order to do that, and I think that the [holistic approach] works.