Sudanese farmers watch wheat harvest rot despite shortage

Government is unable to pay promised rates for the grain, while market rates barely cover cost of production

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Looking at the sacks of wheat stacked in Imad Abdullah's small home, no one would guess that Sudan's food security is hanging by a thread after an October coup and Russia's war in Ukraine.

But the wheat farmer fears that the grain will soon rot, after his country's cash-strapped government backed out of promises to purchase it at incentivising prices.

“It has been two months since I harvested the wheat and I can't store it in the house any more,” said Mr Abdullah, pointing to the large sacks filled with ripened wheat crammed into his small house in Al Laota in Gezira state, south of Sudan's capital.

He is one of thousands of farmers who have cultivated the grain as part of Sudan's largest agricultural scheme, named Al Gezira.

When Mr Abdullah harvested in March, he was promised 43,000 Sudanese pounds ($75) per sack — a price set by the government to encourage farmers to cultivate the grain.

“We used to sell the government our entire harvest. We never had to bring it home. We don't even have adequate storage places.”

But Sudanese officials have declared in recent weeks that they will not be able to buy this season's entire harvest due to lack of funds.

Impoverished Sudan has for years been grappling with a grinding economic crisis, which deepened after last year's military coup prompted western governments to cut crucial aid.

The October coup derailed a fragile transition put in place following the 2019 removal of president Omar Al Bashir.

More than 18 million people, nearly half the Sudanese population, are expected to be pushed into extreme hunger by September, according to United Nations estimates.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, both key grain suppliers, adds to Sudan's existing food security troubles.

Wheat imports from both nations make up between 70 and 80 per cent of Sudan's local market needs, according to a 2021 UN report.

Last month, dozens of wheat farmers from Sudan's Northern State staged a protest outside the agricultural bank after it refused to take their harvest.

“I grew 16 acres [6.5 hectares] of wheat this season, filling some 120 sacks amounting to a total of 12 tonnes,” farmer Modawi Ahmed told AFP.

He said the bank only agreed to buy less than half of his harvest, and he now fears the rest will spoil.

Farmers working the fields as part of the Al Gezira scheme have over the years contributed only a part of Sudan's annual wheat needs of 2.2 million tonnes.

This year, local wheat production was forecast to cover only a quarter of the country's needs, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The finance ministry earlier this month said it was committed to building a strategic wheat reserve of up to 300,000 tonnes.

But the government “does not have the money to buy the harvest”, said an official with Sudan's agricultural bank, which procures the wheat from farmers.

We have asked the finance ministry and the central bank for funds but we got no response
Sudanese agricultural bank official

“We have asked the finance ministry and the central bank for funds but we got no response,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

An official with Sudan's finance ministry, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the lack of funds.

Properly stored wheat can last up to a year and a half in silos with controlled temperature and humidity levels, according to agricultural expert Abdulkarim Omar.

But it “could spoil within as little as three months” in inadequate storage, he said.

Now, as the new growing season starts, many frustrated farmers are leaving their lands untilled and unprepared.

Kamal Sari, leader of the farmers' association, fears that reluctance to prepare for the new season could affect “food provision for the Sudanese people”.

Last week, two children in Sudan's Darfur region died “due to hunger-related causes”, UK-based aid group Save the Children said, warning it was “an ominous sign of what is to come”.

Sudanese households have come under increasing pressure in recent months due to spiralling fuel and electricity prices.

Prices of staple food items have also skyrocketed, with inflation recently surpassing 200 per cent.

Rising bread prices due to slashed wheat subsidies sparked the political turmoil and mass rallies that led to the removal of Bashir in 2019.

Given the economic crisis and the continuing war in Ukraine, economist Mohamed Al Nayer said “the government should buy the wheat from farmers at any price”.

Otherwise, he said, “it complicates the situation in Sudan far more than it already is.”

Updated: June 19, 2022, 8:34 AM