How Akobo is fighting malnutrition with demo farms
One beautiful Thursday morning, I awoke with an unsatiable urge to take a couple of snaps of a beautiful Kudura demo farm that I had seen the previous day.
As I was snapping moments frozen in time, I was thinking about who is going to be the first person to taste the proceeds of this lovely food growing in a well-taken-care of garden in Bilkey Payam, Akobo County, Jonglei State.
Akobo town is strategically located on the Bor River, which further north acts as a permanent boundary between South Sudan and neighbouring Ethiopia.
Akobo, whose primary inhabitants are nomadic, is thus one of the 11 counties that constitute Jonglei State. It is prone to drought, and life here can be unbearable when it rains; flooding is enshrined in the county’s DNA. These natural calamities have left the population on constant move, either in search of pasture and water for their livestock during dry seasons; or moving to higher ground whenever the rains come down from the ‘highlands’.#
But despite the tough climatic conditions in Akobo, a group of women here are changing the narrative by engaging in agricultural activities to fight and kick out hunger in Akobo.
A place where people heavily depend on fish and animal products for survival, farming activities along the banks of the river by these indefatigable and anginous women are helping the county fight malnutrition cases.
On the small piece of land here, the group plants diverse, nutritious foods, adequate to meet the needs of the local community.
According to the IPC report and the South Sudan HNO, the malnutrition cases have increased from 2.0 million to 2.2 million, with Jonglei having the highest number of malnutrition cases at 312,984 ( 78, 282 SAM and 234, 702 MAM).
However, factors such as children’s vulnerability continue to deteriorate. Between 2020 and 2023, child vulnerability increased from 4 to 4.9 million; food insecurity continued to rise from 6.6 million to 8.0 million; and lack of access to basic health services increased from 3.6 to 6.1 million, according to the report.
Additionally, the report adds, it is estimated that 61,000 people in Fangak, Canal/Pigi and Akobo as well as Pibor County in the Greater Pibor Administrative Area are in acute food insecurity.
Roader Nyathok, 29, used to fend for her six children by selling firewood in the market. The danger that came with the work, she says, was mind-wrecking; hence, when she heard that a local NGO was training women on how to maximise their land for better yields, Nyathok, who hails from Babel Boma in Bilkay Payam, said she never had a second thought about joining the other women– on the farm.
“I really wish never to go back to that kind of life,” Nyathok, remembers the difficult life of having to go to the bush to collect firewood, for sale, a journey that would sometimes take up to eight hours of footing.
Hers was a life of real struggle. Even after struggling for all those hours, she recalled the many incidents where her products would stay in the market for days without making any meaningful sales. That meant that back at home, her eight children slept on empty bellies.
“Life was very difficult for me; sometimes I would have swollen legs after walking for long kilometers in search of firewood,” she added as she fought back the tears of painful memories of her old life as a squaller.
She then went into a temporary, deafening silence. One could hear the pin drop if it weren’t for the chirping, melodious sound of the birds, keeping us company from a distance.
The farm pays off
When she finally composed herself, I realized that Nyathok’s voice had changed, perhaps due to the bad memories of pain and struggles that she went through before enlisting in the CIDO programme that supports agriculture but has the main aim of fighting malnutrition among children in Akobo.
“Of what significance is this demo farm to you?” I asked Nyathok through my translator. What followed was a big, infectious smile on her glowing face. That question brought life back to her face, just as her sweat on the farm brings life to the local population here.
“The organization has given us the ability that we didn’t have or know before. I didn’t know about most of these plants that we were trained to grow,” she says.
“We used to plant maize and sorghum. But now I am able to tell people about eggplants, okra, jute mallow (kudra), carrots, cucumbers, and cabbage. These are new to us here,” she explained.
“Right now we are making money out of what we have done ourselves as women; this is something we would have never learned. Now I am able to take some of the products to market, I have touched money that I had never touched before.
“Our children have tasted the kind of food that they have never eaten before, and they are very healthy. There is a big change in my family,”.
Nyathok said she would never want to go back to the old lifestyle of collecting firewood.
“Since we joined CIDO, our lifestyle has really changed. We are requesting that CIDO continue with these programmes in the county in order to help reduce hunger and cases of malnutrition in our communities. From the time they (CIDO) came in, we have improved our children’s health through the crops,”
“The women and I are even ready to open our own demo farm and start growing our plants with the money that we have made out of the plants that we have been plating for the past six months, “she said.
Nyabile Wuor is another of the beneficiaries of modern farming being infused in the minds of women in Akobo for the betterment of their lives and the community around them.
Wuor lost her husband in 2013, leaving her with six children to take care of.
She is only 29.
But nothing can compare to what she went through after the death of her husband ten years ago.
“I am not the only one facing these problems; even my neighbors But luckily, we support ourselves. I have something to eat, I will share it with them, and if they have it, they can help me as well,” Wuor says.
Many of these women on the farms, even those who decided to stay away from ‘dirtying their hands’ were left widows at a younger age, some with more than four children to take care of.
To most, every day is a struggle. But those who took up farming say having something to do keeps them away from peeling the old wounds of losing a loved one.
“Before, my thinking capacity was just centered on one stage. But now, the demo farm and mother-to-child programme rolled out by CIDO have taught us many things.
“We just started this programme in March, and our lives have really changed.
“The programme has built unity among us because we stay and learn together different ways of carrying out new farming skills, we even learned how to share our problems and how to overcome them,’ added Wuor.
Community Initiative for Development Organization (CIDO), a local NGO that supports local solutions on critical areas of social and economic development, including health and hunger, is training women in Akobo on how to plant nutritious food through the demo farm and kitchen gardening.
What’s a demo farm?
A demo farm is a method demonstration that shows farmers how a particular activity or task is carried out, e.g., how to plant crops.
Experts say, demo farming, one of the oldest methods of teaching, is an effective method since the farmers can practice, see, hear, and discuss during the demonstration.
Apart from farming, these women have also been enlisted in Mother-to-Mother Support Groups, where they get to be trained on how to handle malnutrition cases, malnutrition management, and the factors that cause them.
“I have learned that lactating children should not be introduced to solid food but instead be exclusively breastfed until they reach six months.
After that, the child is introduced to soft food. But before, most mothers would give our young children solid food, which was not good at all. At least now I am able to spread the message on the right feeding for children,” added Wuor.
With the support from Save the Children, CIDO have managed to train over 500 women on how to be resilient through the demo farm and also how to fight the cases of malnutrition in the communities.