FAO is helping a women’s cooperative in Wau succeed despite harsh climatic conditions and faraway markets.
In the scorching heat of rural Jur River County in South Sudan, Akuol stands proudly in front of a delegation of local government, national and international staff, and what seems to be the entire village.
As chairlady of the Marial Ajith Sulak “Women for Peace” Cooperative, Akuol describes the joy she feels seeing her group ‘graduate’ from subsistence to market-oriented farming in the last few years. Their success now is driven by the trouble they faced before moving to agriculture, in the dangerous and unsustainable income-generating activity of firewood collection and charcoal making. This practice, while contributing to the already rampant deforestation and desertification of South Sudan, is also labour-intensive and often dangerous for women who have to go into forests alone and walk several kilometres to collect the wood.
Agriculture, on the other hand, has allowed them to stay closer to home, independently generate a greater income, while being part of a cooperative community of strong women.
“Our income was never enough to allow us to dress smart like now,” jokes Akuol to the crowd as she shows off her patterned skirt and purse.
In the past couple of years, the cooperative has been supported through the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) programming providing foundation seeds, or seeds optimized to establish seed multiplication activities. In September 2021, they began working with the project Sustainable Agriculture for Economic Resilience (SAFER) funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to further develop their cooperative and bring them a higher-income through post-harvest production. They soon expanded their vegetable gardens utilizing the seed provided by FAO, and as a result, have increased their family and community dietary diversity and income. As George, the group’s secretary states, the eggplants and kale they now produce fetch high prices at the market as they are rare to the area but increasing in popularity.
Now, through the SAFER project, Akuol, George and the rest of the cooperative have created a business plan, outlining group leadership roles, a mission statement, financial plans, and more to bring them to the next level of production. But today, the crowd is large because the group sees further fruits of their hard work through the delivery of agro-processing machinery. After Akuol and the others have finished speaking, the crowd makes its way over to the area where brand new groundnut paste maker, peanut and groundnut sheller, motor-driven tricycles, a weighing scale, and power tiller are being introduced through demonstration. While the agro-processing equipment will help the cooperative diversify and increase their income, the tricycles will allow them to access the markets more easily and often. As described by the group leaders, previously, they would harvest and not be able to take it to market until days later, all-the-while paying 500 South Sudanese Pounds (about USD 4.15) for just one-way transportation.
“Now we can harvest today and take it to market the next”.
This machinery accompanies trainings on business development, post-harvest loss prevention, processing, and marketing.
Women’s skills in farming as a business have improved, and so has their income, filling the current local production gap and demand for vegetables, which were mainly imported from neighbouring countries before. Marial Ajith is just one of the many communities supported by FAO. Through the SAFER project, FAO has worked with a total of 14 858 female farmers, beekeepers, fisherfolk, and livestock keepers since 2017. Often relegated to less prosperous, but more laborious livelihood activities, women in South Sudan are finding independence through food production and marketing thanks to USAID and FAO. Since the project’s inception, SAFER female beneficiaries have not only reported making higher incomes after the livelihood and technical trainings and input distributions, but earning more respect in their households and communities from their growing businesses. In a nearby women’s cooperative in the same region as Akuot’s, when asked about who is the head of her household, one woman replied, “It was always my husband, but now that I am the group treasurer, I am the head of my own household”.
While these women have been empowered, they have in turn strengthened their family’s resilience to climatic, economic, and other shocks.
Akuot excitedly states, “Before we were strong, but now we are strong and smart” after receiving these machines and trainings.