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South Sudan's food prices soar

Business

'I sell the small bottle of cooking oil for 140 pounds (South Sudanese pounds). Six months ago, it was 70. The customers complain,” said James Deng, an 18-year-old stallholder in Aweil, South Sudan.

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TOUGH TIMES: Traders sell vegetables in a market in Akuem, outside Aweil. More than 50% of the cultivation has been lost in the area due to dry spells, floods and plant diseases. Since last year more than 70 000 people from Northern Bahr al Ghazal migrated to Sudan. Picture: AFP

In this regional market in the country’s north-west - just as at the main Konyo Konyo Market in the capital Juba, 800km to the south, and other towns across the country - prices of essential items have rocketed as a direct consequence of almost uninterrupted civil war since December 2013.

The South Sudanese pound (SSP) has collapsed from 18.5 to the dollar in December 2015 to around 140 now in black market transactions in Juba.

Inflation has reached record levels increasing by 730% in the 12 months leading up to last August, according to World Bank figures.

Adam Oumar, a shopkeeper in Aweil, sells red onions for 500 SSP per "malua", an iron container used as a measuring unit and containing about 4kg. Only six months ago, it cost 70 SSP.

“It’s now very expensive and people can’t afford it, so they take little,” he said, standing in front of his shop, well-stocked like those of his neighbours, but lacking customers.

In Konyo Konyo, Saturdays used to be the busiest, but in early June the dense maze of uneven paths contained just a few customers, shuffling between stalls dedicated to mattresses, plastic buckets and second-hand clothing in the section run by Sudanese traders.

Vegetables are sold in an area dominated by Ugandan merchants.

Kamala, a 46-year-old schoolteacher, a basket of shopping in her hand, said: “I came with 6 000 pounds, but just see, this basket is not filled up.”

She said she had received her last wages in January and it was becoming increasingly difficult to buy the basics. Kamala should receive 2000 pounds a month, a salary that has not increased for years. Early last year, it was worth about $65. Now it’s worth just $15. This is a particular problem in South Sudan where almost everything is imported.

“This money we are pulling out now, it’s money we saved for the future, to cater for issues of children, medicine or education for children. But this money, now we are finishing it for food,” she said.

“The first solution is for the conflict to stop. This will give us opportunity to cultivate and grow our own food,” Kamala said.

In South Sudan, 85% of the working population is self-employed, the overwhelming majority engaged in small-scale farming. But the conflict has severely disrupted agricultural production, triggering a major food crisis nationwide and even famine in some areas.

The government of President Salva Kiir ordered food trucks from neighbouring Uganda to Juba at the beginning of May.

The influx of subsidised food was supposed to help relieve pressure on prices, but the effect was limited. The conflict has also hit South Sudan’s oil production - its only source of foreign exchange - at the same time as global oil prices have tumbled.

“Before the crisis of 2013 we were producing 240 000 barrels a day. In 2014 up to the first half of 2015, we were producing 160 000 barrels a day. To my knowledge, we are below 130 000,” said Finance Minister Stephen Dhieu.

He said the government was trying to rehabilitate some of the oil facilities damaged by fighting and increase production to around 160 000 to 180 000 barrels a day this year.

The country is the world’s most reliant on oil revenues, which account for almost all of its exports and for 60% of gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.

Truckers, taxis and private individuals struggle to fill their tanks, waiting for hours in long queues outside the few petrol stations that have fuel.

The alternative is the black market where, in Aweil for example, Sadik sells a 16 litre container of petrol for 2 800 pounds, up from 1 700 six months ago. Rather than a black market, this is a parallel market, operating in plain sight, on a busy city road.

The only time Sadik has any problems with officials, he says, is when they come to complain that traders are stockpiling fuel to push prices even higher. - AFP

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