Race against time to plant in South Sudan

Overcoming COVID-19 challenges to get seeds to farmers in South Sudan

A farmer in South Sudan’s Northern Bari Payam in Central Equatoria State holding seeds received at an FAO distribution. Between 3-4 April 2020, FAO distributed seeds and farming tools to 500 households in the area. ©FAO/Mayak Akuot


The coronavirus pandemic has triggered movement restrictions all over the world. In South Sudan, FAO has had to find new ways to work in order to get much-needed seeds to farmers in time for the coming planting season. Without these seeds, farming families could face a food crisis within the global health crisis.

“If we miss this planting season, farming families could fall into a hunger catastrophe in a few months’ time,” says FAO Representative in South Sudan Meshack Malo, speaking from Juba.

FAO has an enormous challenge of distributing around 10 000 metric tons of seeds to vulnerable farmers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to plant. The huge volume of seeds – maize, sorghum, groundnuts, cowpeas and vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants – would fill a fleet of more 300 18-wheeler lorries.  It is enough to grow around 800 000 metric tons of food to feed several hundreds of thousands of people.

In the Equatorial States rains have already started and hopes are high for a good growing season – if the seeds can arrive on time. 

“We are determined to overcome the challenges that coronavirus has presented, and that means working in an agile way to find solutions to ensure farmers can plant this season,” Malo says.

“We need to ensure borders and transport routes can remain open for these essential life-saving deliveries,” he says.

The FAO team, in partnership with the government, sought an agreement to allow the transportation of seeds to the counties and villages where they are needed most. By moving quickly, FAO has so far delivered 4 000 metric tons of seeds and hand tools, with more to come.  

Left/Top: A farmer washes his hands at a recent seed distribution. ©FAO/Mayak Akuot Right/Bottom: FAO counts on 55 implementing partners for community distributions across the country. ©FAO/Mayak Akuot

Ensuring health and safety

FAO is also changing the way it works to ensure the safety of community members and staff. Seed fairs, where farmers and seed traders are brought together by FAO, have been suspended. Instead, FAO is providing cash to vulnerable farmers so that they can purchase seeds directly from vendors.

Around 25 percent of the seeds are sourced locally, meaning shorter value chains and less logistical hurdles to get the seeds from the producers to where they’re needed. 

To encourage physical distancing, seed distributions are taking place in villages rather than at the county level so that fewer people are brought together at one time.

In the past, 500 households or more could be reached in one day, but now with the new safety measures the same delivery is taking several days. FAO has engaged more partners to rapidly multiply the number of distribution points, and new guidelines for partners include protective measures to guard against COVID-19 such as the use of face masks and gloves.

Posters encourage community members to maintain a safe distance from one another, and hand washing facilities are provided. 

Delivering quality in challenging times

“We’re expecting that operations will take longer. Even something like loading a truck will be slower as people observe physical distancing,” Shawn McGuire, a seed specialist at FAO, says.

Movement restrictions mean European labs are cut off, so McGuire has co-produced a guide for in-country sampling and testing to ensure seed quality.

“If we wait too long for testing then the seeds could die, but we also need to ensure their quality before we distribute them, so we’re finding ways to make the process work despite the challenges that COVID-19 is presenting,” he says.

Families living in crowded displaced persons camps are being offered livelihood support if they choose to return to their villages. ©FAO

Staying safe 

Working with the UN Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS), FAO has offered livelihood support to people living in the highly-congested Internally Displaced Persons and Protection of Civilians camps in Wau if they choose to return to their villages, in an effort to protect them from the virus. 

Each household willing to return home has received crop and vegetable seeds, a fishing kit and essential agricultural hand tools so they can resume farming.

FAO’s Victor Onenchan is an Area Coordinator in South Sudan and organizes seed and tool distributions.

“We have spoken to community members about the virus and explained why they need to keep their distance. It was strange to them at first, but they took it positively,” he said.

Like many people around the world at the moment, Onenchan is working from home rather than going into the office each day. In Juba, his electricity is supplied by a generator so when it cuts out as it sometimes does, the internet is also cut off.

“But we are still managing to work, and the seeds are moving,” he says.  

This year, despite the coronavirus, FAO plans to reach 4.8 million people – or around 800 000 vulnerable households – with livelihood support. FAO’s emergency work in South Sudan is funded by the Governments of the United Kingdom (UK Aid), the United States (USAID), the Netherlands, Norway, the United Nations Central Emergency Fund (CERF) and the South Sudan Humanitarian Fund.

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2. Zero hunger, 15. Life on land