Akec Khoc, South Sudanese ambassador to the United States, is spending time at Duke to help find ways to improve food security in South Sudan.
As part of the University’s Africa Initiative, Khoc was invited to campus to speak about food security in the newly independent South Sudan and to learn about a Duke-led project that aims to alleviate the problem by introducing a strain of maize through South Sudan. Led by adjunct professor of biology Mary Eubanks, junior Nyuol Tong—a South Sudanese student who opened a school in his home village last August—and Ellen Davis, the Amos Ragan Kearns distinguished professor of bible and practical theology at the Divinity School, the venture aims to revolutionize the future of sustainable agriculture in the country.
“South Sudan is... living with the difficulties of food security,” Khoc said. “We see it in the general population and we see it in the household—there are so many difficulties that we need to share with others and think together on how to resolve some of them.... Maize is one of our staple food products so if we can expand and grow, it will not be a new product, it would help resolve a number of issues.”
Developed by Eubanks, the maize is particularly resistant to droughts, floods and insects; it is also high in protein. Eubanks initially cross-pollinated gamagrass and teosinte, two types of maize ancestors that exhibit the aforementioned properties. She then used the hybrid to develop those properties for corn. In 1984, Eubanks became the first scientist to successfully breed this maize that resembles hardier, ancient varieties of the crop that are now staples across Africa.
Tong began working with Eubanks his freshman year to develop the hybrid, and they now hope to plant it at the school Tong founded, the Malualdit Ayeit Liberty Academy. Khoc said he is excited about the maize’s potential to alleviate persistent issues plaguing the fledgling country, which continues to recover from more than 20 years of war.
“This could revolutionize the whole South Sudan in so many ways,” said Tong, who noted that he grew up eating maize. “The whole process of farming will involve the community.... We’re relying on the local skill, the local knowledge and the local farming schools.... There couldn’t be a better project, and I can see its potential.”
Eubanks’ cross-pollination work has produced several strains of the hybrid maize. Some of these varieties are currently being tested out in Renk, South Sudan, at the Renk Theological College. Several varieties of the seed have been tested there over the past few years. This connection was forged by Davis, who has taught in South Sudan since 2004 and has worked extensively in the Episcopal Church of Sudan, an institution with 4.5 million members.
Davis has been a friend and colleague of Eubanks for several years and noted how well Eubanks’ research fit with the “holistic model of theological education” Davis has been pursuing.
“[The model] includes what we would call traditional theological education but also sustainable community health and community agriculture,” Davis said, noting that significant gains have been made in the former two categories. “The community agriculture has been the piece that we didn’t yet know how to develop.... It’s been the slowest one.”
The two decided last summer to pursue the project together as part of the Africa Initiative, sponsored by the University.
“The aim of this is to try to make it available for people who desperately need the food and the protein and for many of whom maize is already a standard part of their diet,” Davis said.
Eubanks has a doctorate degree in anthropology, and noted that her background gave her insight on how to approach the task of aid and development in South Sudan. She said it is important to collaborate with the villages involved, as opposed to imposing solutions that are not necessarily sustainable or practical in the villages involved.
“You need to work with people and let them tell you what they need,” Eubanks said. “In South Sudan, they don’t have infrastructure to move equipment and machinery to do industrial agriculture, and these people are hungry now.”
The maize being tested can be saved and replanted every year, Eubanks said, which makes it a truly sustainable crop. It also is cultivated with traditional farming methods that Sudanese people already know.
Although traditional farming methods persist throughout Sudanese communities, Khoc noted that as many residents were forced to refugee camps in neighboring countries—particularly Ethiopia—they lost the skills to farm their own food, as they were given a ration of grain every week. The implementation of local farms will serve to reintroduce self-sufficiency to the country as it continues to develop.
“The fact of living together in one multiethnic community would be one way of creating dialogue of healing, understanding and resolving perennial conflict,” Khoc said, noting how members of a community could benefit by working together on home farms.
This summer, Tong said he plans to bring seeds back to his village and plant them at farms at his school. He will implement a system to monitor the progress of the different strains in order to determine which grow best and are most useful.
Eubanks, Tong, Davis and Khoc will all present tomorrow—along with President Richard Brodhead and Charles Piot, professor of cultural anthropology, African and African American studies and women’s studies and co-chair of the Africa Initiative—as part of the event “Food Security in Africa: The Case for South Sudan.”
The conference will focus on broader issues of development and food security, and will reflect a variety of perspectives on the issues, Tong noted.
“Development is a real issue,” Tong said. “As you will see tomorrow at the symposium, there are different perspectives about how some projects have worked and some projects have failed.”
Khoc noted that he has high hopes for the project as it relates to the future of his country.
“If we can put funds on research for the seeds that will be used over a long time—not [needing] to buy seeds every year—then we will be enriching and empowering households in South Sudan,” Khoc said.
“Food Security in Africa: the Case for South Sudan,” will take place in Goodson Chapel tomorrow from 1 to 5 p.m.