An Oxfam project helping returnees to South Sudan to start new businesses has had a great impact – but has recently been affected by the economic crisis hitting the country.
Makei Agar, 45, returned to South Sudan a year before its independence with all the hopes of a new beginning for the world’s newest country. Two years later, Makei and 300 other returnees find themselves on the dusty outskirts of Rumbek town in a camp with no school for their children, no health clinic and no opportunities to find work.
An estimated 370,000 people have returned to South Sudan from the north since October 2010. Those who have returned face many cultural, economic and security problems. Many, particular younger generations, were born and raised in the north and are returning ‘home’ to a country they do not know and to regions with few basic services such as water, healthcare and education.
To offer Makei and his community the opportunity to earn an income and provide for their families, Oxfam provides conditional grants for groups of 11 people who would like to set up a small business. The small business group receives two installments, totaling the local equivalent of about $1500, conditional on setting up a small business, which so far have included small restaurants, tea shops, welding workshops and stores selling staple goods.
Makei, a solo father with two children, and his business partners set up a small shop on the main road beside their camp in March this year. They rent the shop space, commute to Rumbek’s main market to buy their stock, and sell their staple products for a small profit.
They were off to an impressive start, with 1000 South Sudanese Pounds saved in the business’s bank account in the first month of trading, but by April profits were being eaten into by sharp price rises in the local market.
“In the first month of business we had 1000 pounds saved, but in April our profit had dropped to 600 pounds,” Makei says. “One bag of sugar was 150 pounds, now it’s 200 pounds. We don’t want to close our shop because we have built up customers and we’ll need them for when the prices return to normal.”
“Since we started, our lives have changed. We used to need help from friends or relatives who would give us some flour and salt, but now we are earning our own money.”
However, prices continue to rise throughout South Sudan since the country failed to reach agreement with Sudan over oil transfers and consequently abruptly shutdown its oil industry in February this year. As a result the new country lost a staggering 98 per cent of its income earnings, the impacts of which are being felt severely throughout the country, not just in the border states.
Now one year old, South Sudan is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the end of Africa’s longest civil war in 2005.The value of the South Sudanese pound has plummeted against the dollar, leaving small traders unable to stock market shelves of imported goods, which the country relies heavily upon. Soaring inflation is driving essential food and supplies far beyond the reach of ordinary people and pushing more people into poverty.
For Makei and his business partners, just as they have everything in place for financial security and the opportunity to work themselves out of poverty, barriers beyond their means are undermining their hopes for a better future.