- Bringing the land under cultivation -

Improvements in sectors such as the oil industry will have a positive spin-off in the development of the country's sorely under-used farming resources

Ahuge amount of land is available in Africa's largest country, but political instability has deterred foreign investment and there are millions of fallow hectares to be brought under cultivation. Only five per cent of this land is cultivated, and barely one per cent of that is irrigated, despite the mighty White Nile and Blue Nile running through the country. Yet frequent droughts mean food shortages are common in many areas and famine is always knocking on the door.

As the mainstay of the economy, agriculture provides about 40 per cent of gross domestic product, 90 per cent of export earnings as at 1998, and employs four out of five people. Export crops are grown mostly in the Gezira area between the Blue and White Niles, where the government is keen to raise production. The traditional farming areas are semi-arid and used for livestock. Millions more hectares could be used for animal husbandry and food crops, but major irrigation schemes, such as the Jonglei Canal, have been held back by lack of funding and civil conflict.

The main source of employment and foreign exchange, agriculture is the bedrock of Sudanese society and is worth some $600 million a year. Cotton is the biggest export, followed by gum arabic and sesame. The country boasts more than a million head of livestock and meat is a major income earner. Exports are worth around $130 million a year. The bulk of Sudanese goat and sheep exports go to Saudi Arabia, while camels go solely to Egypt. Slaughtered animals are sold mainly to the Middle East. The great rivers flowing through Sudan offer potential for freshwater fisheries, but like the Red Sea they have barely been exploited.

AHMED 'Vast areas of unexploited pasture' A fish factory has been built by the Arab-German Fisheries Company, with production of about 40,000 tonnes of tuna and 30,000 tonnes of shrimp a year. For all the trials that this nation has been through, there is hope on the horizon. Oil discoveries could transform the economy in the long term. But the need to make the country self-sufficient in food and increase agricultural output for export is paramount.

The Investment (Encouragement) Act was amended this year to promote investment in agriculture and livestock in particular, although vast sums still need to be spent on irrigation schemes, the infrastructure and power. A number of agricultural ventures are now on the government's privatisation list, and Sudan is keen on attracting capital for the less-developed areas and projects which will create export capabilities and jobs. Abdullahi Sid Ahmed, federal minister of animal resources, is optimistic about livestock-rearing. One obstacle is the shortage of fodder, but Mr Ahmed thinks this can be overcome if more investment is made in commercial ranching.

The country boasts more than a million head of livestock

At the present time, cattle ranches rely on natural and organically-grown fodder, which the minister views as an advantage against the background of BSE in Europe. Natural feedstock is reliant on seasonal rainfall, so the yield per hectare is low. Mr Ahmed believes much more could be grown. "We have vast areas of unexploited pasture and we have water," he says. In some regions of north Africa, the water levels have been continuously falling, and supplies are drawn from boreholes as deep as 1,500 metres.

But west of the White Nile and the territory bordering the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, the water table is little more than 30 metres down. "A lot of investment is going into oil," says Mr Ahmed. "That puts us in a better position to invest in agriculture. Now we can feel the change and the greater willing-ness to allot more to this sector."