Agriculture, the backbone to Economic Development

By Prof. James Thubo Ayul

Development economists in general, and agricultural economists in particular, have long focused on how agriculture can best contribute to overall economic growth and modernization, premised on their in-grained belief that robust agricultural growth and productivity increases are crucial to sustained economic development, at least up till the mid-1980s.

Since then, and despite this widely acknowledged role of agriculture in economic development, many policy makers, policy analysts and academics in developing countries, international agencies and donor communities appear to have lost interest in the sector, often relegating its role ‘from engine of growth to sunset status’ (Siamwalla, 1996) and Harron et al (2001) or arguing for its continuing relevance and importance because of its ‘multi-functionality role’ (Abd Rahman, 1992).

However, after almost decades of relative neglect, interest in agriculture is returning in a big and passionate way, as manifested in most agro-based countries where it is heralded as the engine of growth.

After unsuccessful efforts by the Government of South Sudan and development partners to develop agriculture sector in the past, agriculture is now again in the headlines because the five-year conflict, which broke out in Juba on December 15, 2013 and later engulfed other states of the country, deteriorated development achieved since independence in 2011 and worsened the humanitarian situation.  It is expected that full implementation of the upcoming Compromise Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Country between the warring parties, shall put in place the necessary framework for peace and security, and lead to longer-term development and prosperity.

Given the above background, this article centered on the expected role of agriculture in the national economy of South Sudan during the forth-coming interim period. The article attempts to answer outstanding question. Can agriculture be the backbone of South Sudan economic development? Before answering this questions, it is important to highlight on oil and agriculture potentials of the country.

Oil and Gas

South Sudan has enormous opportunities for spatial inclusion, as oil and gas industry holds tremendous promise, but they also, carry significant risks as well. Overdependence on proceeds from the sale of oil in the past had restrained investment in other sectors of the economy, many of which would have produced more jobs (e.g. agriculture). Oil has also led to unbalanced growth and destabilization of the economy. Development of the agricultural sector would counter this trend towards overdependence; but at the moment, the sector has remained subsistence-oriented, with low technology inputs and minimal marketable surplus.

South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world, with oil accounting for almost the totality of exports, 95% of government revenues and about 60% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Outside the oil sector, livelihoods are concentrated in low productive, unpaid agriculture and pastoralists work, accounting for around 15% of GDP (Thubo, 2014).

Although South Sudan has vast and largely untapped natural resources, beyond a few oil enclaves, it remains relatively undeveloped, characterized by a subsistence economy. This subsistence economy has potential to generate resources from various sources to support the on-going peace initiatives, economic crisis, and poverty reduction efforts.


South Sudan has a huge but largely unrealized agricultural potential; the Country is richly endowed with good climate, abundant land and water and fertile soils. More than 70 percent of the country has a length of growing period longer than 180 days and is therefore suitable for crop production. Moreover there are high possibilities for irrigation, production of a wide variety of food crops, cash crops, high value crops and animal breeds through plantation and estate farming for local and external market.

 In most countries, agriculture is the major and most certain path to economic growth and sustainability because when it thrives, it is crucial to long-term peace, stability and development in the country. While the impact of on-going conflict, economic crisis and the drop of international oil prices cannot be underestimated, opportunities to develop value chains in agriculture sector that create jobs and improve household incomes exist.

Experience from other developing nations has shown that, there are two prerequisites for developing a country from low-income agrarian society into a wealthy industrial nation through agriculture. First, agriculture must be productive enough so that only a small part of the resources are needed to produce food and fiber. Second, opportunities are needed for transfer of resources from agriculture, as it becomes more efficient, into the non-farm sector of the economy.

The Government of South Sudan and donors expenditures and support for agriculture sub-sectors in the past has not impacted positively on the sector performance. The funding was inadequate although the sector was identified by the government as among the priorities. For example, from 2006 to 2011 the government expenditure on average was about 1.7 % while, Kenya spent 2.5% and Uganda 4.3%. This insignificant budget allocation to agriculture sector by the Government of South Sudan indicated that the sector was not highlighted as a priority sector by the government and has fallen way below the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) Maputo Declaration target of committing at least 10% of total government budget to the agriculture sector.

On other hand, meager resources were also allocated by donors to agriculture sector during the same years (2006-2011), compared to the sectors of health and education. Between 2008 and 2010, the all-natural resources sector, within which agriculture sector expenditures fall, received only 9.2% of total donors support. The largely under-funding of the sector by both government and donors has negatively affected the usual role of the sector in the national development process crucial for employment, food security and diversification of the economy.

In an attempt to achieve the national overall objectives of  “Guarantee food for all by year 2015”, the government identified development of a sustainable agriculture as the most immediate priority in improving the standard of living of citizens and developing a sustainable economy in the long term. This attempt has required comprehensive transformation of the management of agricultural sector so as to enhance farm production and productivity.

The Government efforts to development agriculture sector were manifested in the following plans: South Sudan Development Plan 2011- 2013 extended to 2016; South Sudan Development Initiative; Ministry of Agriculture Policy framework for 2012-2017; Agricultural Sector Policy Framework 2012; Agriculture Development Strategic Plan 2013-2018; National Effort for Agricultural Transformation with its two components: the Zonal Effort for Agricultural Transformation and the Comprehensive Agricultural Master Plan.

Similar to Government, Development Partners such as NGOs, CBOs and UN agencies in the past have also made interventions and supports in the overall agriculture sector and were in the areas of policy formulation, infrastructure development, service delivery, capacity building, food security and livelihood (improving crop production and post-harvest system; livestock production and fisheries); environmental protection and natural resource use; advocacy and conflict resolution; agribusiness and income generation; nutrition and food aid assistance; developing information systems and coordination and monitoring of interventions (Thubo, 2016).

South Sudan should invest in Agriculture Sector?

The gospel of economic salvation of South Sudan cannot be preached without due regard to agricultural development. Agriculture is the major and most certain path to rural economic growth and sustainability. It encompasses all aspects of human activities – being the art, act, a cultural necessity and science of production of goods through cultivation of land and management of plants and animals which creates an activity web-chain that satisfies social and economic needs.

Since the ancient times, agriculture has been the mainstay of mankind; therefore wise nations all over the globe give it a priority by developing and exploiting this sector for the upkeep of their teeming populations through the earning of revenue for development purposes; as well as employment for the stemming down crimes, corruption and other forms of indiscipline which work against all factors of life, living and most of all economic production. While many nations in the world are working hard and reaping their harvests in this direction, South Sudan future socio-economic and inter-communal stability rests on agriculture sector development.   

The importance of Agriculture in South Sudan economy cannot generally be over-emphasized. With poverty having finally taken residence permit in the country, we cannot get out of it today by just relying on oil and gas. Indeed, one of the surest ways of boosting the economy of the country and creating employment in the future is by laying genuine emphasis on agriculture. This is because apart from providing enough food for consumption and export, the reinvigoration and reenergizing of agriculture will produce cash crops that will yield foreign exchange and also create employment opportunities.

In order to ensure contribution of agriculture to national economic stability during the upcoming transitional period, all stakeholders led by government should cooperate and work hand in hand with other actors to address the current challenges faced by the sector. This included: insecurity; weak institutions, coupled with poor public investments; fragile land tenure system; poor rural physical infrastructure and rudimentary markets with limited access; unfavourable weather conditions such as persistent drought and annual flooding; poor soil management practices; low utilization of fertilizers, improved seeds and other productivity enhancing technologies, combined with poor management and skills; tariff and non-tariff barriers for exportation of agricultural produce.


Moving from a crude oil-dependent nation to an agriculture-dependent nation is like moving from frying pan to fire, unfortunately that is what many people are ignorantly suggesting. What we need is a truly diversified economy where manufacturing and industries play a key role. The Agriculture sector should also be developed using oil revenue to make us food secure and also provide raw materials for industries.

If you want to know what an agriculture dependent South Sudan will look like, there are a few African countries we can cite as examples and they aren’t better off.
Moving from being dependent on crude oil to exporting unprocessed agricultural products is not progress, it is retrogression. What we need is serious industrialization

Certainly, with Government positive intervention on agriculture, the state is set for an agro-based economy that may yield millions if not billions of dollars yearly. The government’s target of having over 80 percent of its population gainfully employed in agriculture would be realized. Agriculture, being the second largest sector of the country economy outside oil and gas, needs farmers with capacity, character and competence.

Maximizing the contribution of agriculture to economic growth in South Sudan will mean improving smallholder famers’ productivity and access to markets, and bolstering distribution systems. Better seed varieties, adequate plant nutrition, effective pest management and other scientific and technological improvements can also boost productivity. After a long protracted wars and the ongoing conflict, however, achieving these objectives will be challenging. For example, there is wide support for building rural roads, but there are many obstacles, including lack of resources, high costs and limited local capacity for road construction, operation and maintenance.

The Author is an Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Partners in Development Services, A Horn of Africa Research Consultancy Firm. He can be reach at E-mail:, and Telephone: + 211(0)912234776, +211 (0)925753212



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