FAO helps a women’s cooperative in Wau succeed despite harsh weather conditions and distant markets.
In the scorching heat of rural Jur River County in South Sudan, Akuol stands proudly before a delegation of local government, national and international staff, and what appears to be the entire village.
As the president of the Marial Ajith Sulak “Women for Peace” cooperative, Akuol describes the joy she feels seeing her group shift from subsistence to market-oriented agriculture over the past few years. Their success is now driven by the difficulties they faced before switching to farming, in the dangerous and unsustainable income-generating activity of collecting firewood and making charcoal. This practice, while contributing to the already endemic deforestation and desertification of South Sudan, is also labor intensive and often dangerous for women who must travel alone into the forests and travel several kilometers to collect the wood.
Farming, on the other hand, allowed them to stay closer to home, independently generate more income, while being part of a cooperative community of strong women.
“Our income has never been enough to allow us to dress smart like now,” Akuol jokes to the crowd as she shows off her patterned skirt and handbag.
For the past two years, the cooperative has been supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) program by providing basic seeds or optimized seeds to establish breeding activities seeds. In September 2021, they began working with the Sustainable Agriculture for Economic Resilience (SAFER) project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to further develop their cooperative and bring them a higher income through to post-harvest production. They quickly expanded their vegetable gardens using seeds provided by FAO and, as a result, increased dietary diversity and income for their families and communities. As George, the group’s secretary, states, the aubergines and kale they now produce fetch high prices in the market as they are rare in the area but are growing in popularity.
Now, thanks to Project SAFER, Akuol, George and the rest of the co-op have created a business plan, outlining the group’s leadership roles, a mission statement, financial plans and more to take them to the next level of production. But today the crowds are big as the group sees more fruits of their hard work through the delivery of agro-industrial machinery. After Akuol and the others are done talking, the crowd heads to the area where a brand new peanut paste maker, peanut and peanut sheller, motor tricycles, weighing scale and tiller are presented by demonstration. While the agro-industrial equipment will help the cooperative diversify and increase its income, the tricycles will allow it to access markets more easily and more often. As described by the group leaders, previously they would harvest and only be able to bring it to market a few days later, while paying 500 South Sudanese Pounds (approximately US$4.15) for one-way transport.
“Now we can harvest today and bring it to market the next day.”
These machines support training on business development, post-harvest loss prevention, processing and marketing.
Women’s skills in farming as a business have improved, as have their incomes, filling the current gap in local production and demand for vegetables, which were previously mainly imported from neighboring countries. Marial Ajith is just one of many communities supported by FAO. Under the SAFER project, FAO has worked with a total of 14,858 women farmers, beekeepers, fishers and herders since 2017. Often relegated to less prosperous but more laborious livelihood activities, women in South Sudan find their independence through to food production and marketing through USAID and FAO. Since the start of the project, women beneficiaries of SAFER have not only reported earning higher incomes after technical and livelihood trainings and input distributions, but also gaining more respect in their households and communities through to their growing businesses. In a neighboring women’s cooperative in the same area as Akuot, when asked who was the head of her family, a woman replied: “It has always been my husband, but now that I am the treasurer of the group, I am at the head of mine. Housework”.
While these women were empowered, they in turn built their families’ resilience to climate, economic and other shocks.
Akuot enthusiastically declares, “Before, we were strong, but now we are strong and smart” after receiving these machines and trainings.