October 17, 2019

Between wars, rural farmers in Yemen and South Sudan become entrepreneurs

Celebrating 25 Years of SPARK

Rural farmers and illiterate people living in fragile or conflict affected regions often bear the brunt of poverty, compared to the rest of the population. Both in Yemen and South Sudan, people have long faced food insecurity and a lack of job opportunities, not because of a lack of arable land to grow crops, but because of the ongoing political instability surrounding them.

In 2012, SPARK began planting the first seeds of our agri-business support programmes in Yemen and South Sudan, with the aim of creating agricultural jobs to improve the livelihoods of young, rural people.

Farmers in Yemen with low literacy levels awarded after completing the financial skills training, 2015

Building the IGNITE village in Yemen

Goma’at Saraah used to be one of the poorest, most rural villages in Yemen. Most villagers had no income and were on the brink of starvation. Within just four months, the previously dry land was transformed into a green oasis, producing fruits and vegetables, eggs and chickens.

As part of SPARK’s Agri-business Creation programme, the Agriculture Cooperation Union (ACU) provided specific solutions for the people of Goma’at Saraah, based on research of the land they live on. The ACU provided technical business training to soon-to-be farmers so that they had the tools to take matters into their own hands.

Ten greenhouses tunnels were built, the local well reinstated and a solar water pump installed in order to facilitate clean water circulation. As a result, 33 men and 27 women now call themselves agri-entrepreneurs, and are able to sell their produce at local markets for a profit.

What had started as a small scale project rapidly became a model for future work and more IGNITE villages were built across Yemen. Noticing the success, the Ministry of Industry and Trade joined efforts to break down barriers facing Yemeni entrepreneurs in registering their small businesses. Previously plagued by bureaucracy, a new ‘one window system’ was kickstarted to ensure that entrepreneurs needed to complete a simple process in order to become officially recognised business-owners.

The first seedling that grew from the soil in Goma’at Saraah had sparked a chain of events that saw individuals contributing to the food security of their communities. Rural, illiterate Yemenis were rebuilding their own societies, without the need for international aid.

Sunflower oil reducing child marriage in South Sudan

“In South Sudan, entrepreneurship was not considered a job. All the young people wanted to work for the government or an international NGO,” recalls Lauren Servin, an agri-entrepreneur and SPARK’s first business development consultant in the region.

In order to boost the concept of entrepreneurship among rural youth, SPARK launched a series of business plan competitions, whereby young people were taken from ideation to access to finance.

In 2013, Emmanuel Bugga Budyang fled his hometown of Kajo Keji, in rural South Sudan, when the civil war broke out. The tribal fighting led to one of the largest humanitarian disasters in recent years, with nearly 400,000 people killed and over 12 million displaced.

While seeking refuge in Uganda, Emmanuel noticed vast Ugandan sunflower farms extracting the oil. Inspired, he returned to Kajo Keji with a plan. Joining SPARK, he received training and coaching and went on to win the business plan competition, which allowed him to purchase sunflower seeds and equipment to process the flower’s oil. His business became the sole vegetable oil extraction company operating in South Sudan.

Emmanuel went on to collaborate with 500 farmers and retailers, providing jobs for women and ex-combatants, who found some normality in the middle of crisis. “Introducing sunflower production to Kajo Keji has improved people’s economic environment…This led to an increasing number of girls enrolled in school and more employment opportunities; two important factors which will reduce the number of child marriages,” said Emmanuel in 2015.

Resilience and flexibility

Doing business in the world’s most volatile environments requires huge resilience. SPARK’s programmes supporting the growth of the agricultural sectors in Yemen and South Sudan needed to constantly adapt and sometimes heavy conflict forced local offices to temporarily shut down and finally close operations in Yemen in 2018.

Despite the 2018 peace deal in South Sudan, which brought a sustained wave of calm to the region, Emmanuel too struggled to keep his sunflower business operational due to a lack of investment. However, entrepreneurs are resilient people who work hard to rebuild their futures. Now, with the skills he acquired from learning and doing business, Emmanuel is employed as a Business Development Advisor for SPARK’s local partner, Premium Agro Consult.

Agri-entrepreneurs that have been part of SPARK’s programmes, saw the direct fruits of their labour and a cycle of teaching and learning has been set in motion. The skills they’ve learnt will be passable through the generations, creating a self-sufficiency that is so hard to acquire in times of war.