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January 07, 2012

South Sudan: Africa’s next farming frontier

by Catherine Riungu

In yet another development that brings South Sudan closer to the East African Community, the country has become the newest state to join the regional agricultural research network.

The world’s newest country was recently unanimously accepted to become the 11th member of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in East and Central Africa (Asareca) during its first general assembly that was held in Entebbe, Uganda.

According to Harvard professor, Calistous Juma, who gave the keynote address, South Sudan will play a key role in developing agriculture in the region by providing opportunities to apply the latest technologies on untested ground.

“South Sudan is lucky because it will get started with the latest and best agricultural technologies as it embarks on developing its economic base,” he said adding that since agriculture is the most viable industry the country can tap into and reap substantially because of being endowed with unfarmed soils and plenty of irrigation water from the Nile, it has potential to feed the region and generate more for selling into a food deficit world.

By an interesting coincidence, a young Sudanese researcher who is studying in Kenya at the Kenyatta University’s department of biotechnology Rashar Omer has made history by developing the first drought-resistant maize gene that was unveiled at the conference and named Asareca gene.

Slated for commercialisation in 2018, the gene is being touted by scientists who are excited by the breakthrough as having the potential to finally lead Africa to an agrarian revolution that has evaded the continent for decades.

The gene and the entry of South Sudan were not the only good news coming out of the Asareca assembly. The continent, known for shameful scenes of hunger, malnutrition and starvation is slowly emerging out of the jinx and headed towards becoming the world’s bread basket.

Experts say African scientists are coming up with continent specific research products while the political leadership that has for long shunned agriculture is beginning to lead from the front.

According to Asareca director general Seyfu Katema, 60 per cent of the world’s arable land is in Africa but the continent has failed to mine this potential due to low uptake of technology and poor leadership condemning it to perpetual food shortages.

In the middle of this darkness is emerging a flicker of light. Professor Juma, who is booking a place for himself among world leaders by crusading for a hunger-free Africa says four of the continent’s Heads of State are showing that with the right approach and a growing passion, it can be done.

“I am following and working very closely with presidents who are leading the way with incredible results, and it is their passion that is going to change Africa’s agriculture,” he says citing Guinea’s Lansana Conte, Malawi’s Mbingu wa Mutharika, Ghana’s John Atta Mills and closer home, Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete. “Never in the history of Africa have presidents taken agriculture so seriously as it is in these four countries with amazing results,” he added.

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame directly supervises the Ministry of Agriculture.

The East African

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