Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network
Mohamed Elfadl

Livelihoods Options and The Environment in Renk County, Upper Nile State, Southern Sudan


Across large parts of the Sudan, the natural resources from which poor rural populations derive their livelihoods are being degraded or becoming increasingly scarce. In Renk area, Southern Sudan, the rural people depend heavily on the natural resources for their survival and livelihoods. However, the area faces a complex set of socio-economic problems and environmental crisis, brought on by multiple natural and man-made causes. Maintenance of productive lands and livestock production are limited by the inadequacy of the basic infrastructure.

As part of the LAMPTESS project coordinated by Viikki Tropical Resources Institute (VITRI) of the University of Helsinki, carried out in the Upper Nile State since May 2008, a socio-economic baseline survey for three selected villages in Renk area was conducted during July-September 2008. The methodology combined the use of the framework of SWOT and sustainable livelihood analysis reflecting the prospects in natural resource management. The aim of this article is to introduce some of the results of the survey. Moreover, implications of these findings will be discussed.

The LAMPTESS Project has been coordinated by Viikki Tropical Resources Institute (VITRI) of the University of Helsinki, since May 2008 providing capacity-building support for the University of Upper Nile at the Renk Campus (i.e. the Faculty of Agriculture and the Faculty of Forestry and Range Sciences) and for the Forest Office in Renk. The capacity-building will now particularly focus on building up extension services in the surrounding countryside in Renk area in accordance with the respective mandates of the Sudanese partner-organisations in Upper Nile State. To achieve this kind of development there is also a need to strengthen both organisations in their visions, strategies, field activities, in-house expertise as well as research and reporting skills.


Institutional capacity building is one of the aims of the LAMPTESS-project.

Renk County

Renk County occupies an area of 32,000 km2 and is located in the northern part of the Upper Nile State, along the eastern side of the White Nile some 500 km south of Khartoum. An assessment of human population conducted in 2001 estimated the total population to be 150,000 persons in Renk County. At present the number is estimated to have increased to over 350,000 due to a high birth-rate and a substantial influx of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and returnees. The major ethnic groups in Renk County are the Shilluk, Denka Bellang, Nger, Dagu, Burun, Funj and Selaim.

In Renk County there are four main types of land use: a) irrigated agriculture (125,000 ha) growing various crops including cereals, vegetables and horticultural crops, b) traditional rain-fed farming (105,000ha), c) mechanized rain-fed agriculture (1,522,000 ha), and d) forests and rangelands (1,041,668 ha). During recent years due to irrigation problems, erratic rainfall and other reasons for diminishing agricultural incomes, large changes have occurred in land-use patterns as compared with the traditional use of the land. The current fast decline in crop production per feddan (feddan=0.42 ha) in both major mechanised rain-fed schemes and smallholding farms is quite alarming.

The topography is generally flat (elevation is around 380 m. a.s.l.) except for a few sandy outcrops (qoz). The soil in the area is often from alluvial material and is locally known as the dark cracking cotton soil type. These soils are generally fertile and the main limiting factor is nitrogen on the irrigated scheme lands or other lands that receive sufficient rainwater. Renk area has basically two distinct seasons, which are the wet or rainy season (June-October) and the dry season (November - May). The annual precipitation (about 450550 mm) has become erratic in time and place with frequent long drought spells in the rainy season.

Irrigated agriculture of vegetables and fruits has developed in the last 50 years along the river banks in the northern Upper Nile State. The three largest irrigation schemes in Renk County are Gaiger, Magara and Abu Khadra, which are at least partly included in the project area. Today, most of the irrigated agriculture in Upper Nile is basically nonoperational due to broken pumps and other managerial reasons. Accordingly, large parts of the schemes are thus idle or used as rain-fed agricultural land where mainly sorghum is grown. An increased expansion of the mechanized rain-fed agriculture combined with an increased number of livestock exerts currently heavy pressure on the natural vegetation. The consequences are now seen in the depletion of the most palatable species and the endangerment of many other vegetation types. Further depletion is caused by nomads who use fire to rejuvenate grasslands.

Renk County lies in the savannah belt and is characterised by scattered trees of mainly Acacia species that used to be very dense, but have now been cleared to a large extent for rain-fed mechanized agriculture. Today the most dominant tree species have disappeared and a few herbs and grasses exist, such as Cenchrus biflorus, Aristida papposa and Panicum turgidum.

In the vicinity of Renk there are no urban forests and the town itself and its rural areas would need an extensive tree planting programme i.e. for public parks, roadside trees and other trees to green the area. Revision of the situation calls for a much larger central nursery than the existing one, and a proper strengthening and capacity building of the FD staff in Renk. In the rural communities there are also needs for community nurseries to ensure the success of the needed future tree-planting programmes.

Click for full resolution map


The project area

The Renk project area is located north-northeast from Renk and it includes the lands and villages of three irrigation schemes (Abu Khadra, Magara and Gaiger) along the Nile, three rain-fed mechanized scheme villages (Goz Rhum, Nger and Goz Fami) and two semi-pastoral villages comprising about a dozen subvillages spread out over several square kilometres in the project area (each subvillage named after the subvillage sheikh, i.e. the village leader).

The total human population in the project area is about 37,000 persons. Particularly the semi-pastoralist households own large numbers of livestock (several hundred thousand heads of cattle, sheep and goats) that are grazing in the project area during two periods of the year on their constant annual routes north or south seeking for fresh grazing lands. About half of all livestock die each year due to various diseases and a lack of water during their long-distance migration.

During the time of the baseline survey, the land size was typically ten feddan or less (median of interviewed households 8.9 feddan, which equals 3.7 ha). The majority of farmers owned their lands but within the irrigation scheme the land was owned by the government. Rent of the land could be paid in cash or as a percentage of yields according to the agreement. Some farmers used rented machines in their fields when accessible. A significant source of additional income for many people in these villages was working as a paid labourer in farm work.

The primary natural resource users and managers were farmers and pastoralists who represented various ethnic groups, both native and migrant. The village head had a significant role in the natural resource management, for instance, in distributing the land. Local actors also included forest guards, like in Abu Khadra, which had a volunteer to guard the forest for a small payment. Moreover, local courts existed, and they solved different kinds of minor conflicts, including those concerning natural resources. In some cases, negotiation between parties was used to solve the conflicts, for example between pastoralists and farmers. In general, local cooperation was also appreciated, and it was already working relatively well. The farmer villages had good cooperation with the neighbouring villages. This regarded not only natural resources but they also had social interaction, in the case of seasonal celebrations for instance.

The government institutions responsible for forests were the GOSS Directorate of Forestry and its local Forest Office in Renk but their activities were minor in the villages studied. However, when a fire damaged a large area near Goz Rum in 2006, the authorities assisted villagers to recover. Government organisations were little involved in other farming activities or natural resource management, except for irrigated farming within the scheme, in which also some other organizations were involved. In a rain-fed farming area, such as in Goz Rum and Shiekh Yasin, some spraying of pesticides was carried out. In addition, some rain-fed agricultural schemes with extension were carried out in 2005 in Goz Rum and Goz Fami.


Interviewing the local communities, assessing their needs and listening to local knowledge - community participation is the aim.

Rain-fed farming

Rain-fed farming was the most important livelihood strategy in the area, as most of the villagers cultivated rain-fed fields. Altogether 40 respondents of 46 indicated farming as their occupation including many pastoralists in Shiekh Yasin.

The most important staple crop was sorghum, of which different species and varieties were grown. Sorghum was also sold if a household had surplus or an urgent need of cash. A more important crop than sorghum as a source of income in Goz Rum and Goz Fami was, however, groundnut. Other cash crops included karkadeh (Hibiscus sp.) cowpea and okra, which were all used primarily for household consumption.

Sesame could potentially produce good income, but it requires high inputs, such as pesticides, and was therefore too costly for many farmers to grow. Some of the farmers interviewed in Goz Rum and Goz Fami, however, cultivated and sold sesame. For household consumption, snake cucumber and maize were popular among other crops.

Women often cultivated small home gardens with a variety of crops. However, they indicated some problems that this practice faced. The lack of water and seeds was the most significant obstacle for developing their home gardens. In addition, they wished for better tools.

Often the lack of a fence or an inadequate one was a problem because then domestic animals damaged the crops. In particular, this seemed to be a problem in the pastoralist communities.

The advantage of home gardens was that they required relatively small inputs, also in terms of labour. Labour in the farms consisted mainly of household members, the number depending on household size, but for weeding or harvesting paid labour was quite often used. Some farmers indicated that they use paid labour only if they can afford, and some said that they hire labour only sometimes or rarely. Those who had farms larger than twenty feddan (8.4 ha) could hire 5–10 labourers or even more if the farming area was large.

Irrigated farming

Irrigated farming took place in three villages situated close to the river: in Gaiger and Magara, which both had a large scheme ongoing and also some small-scale irrigation, and in Abu Khadra, where the large scheme had been restarted after a long break and stopped again. In Abu Khadra some efforts for small-scale irrigation had also been made.

In the fields of the government irrigation scheme in Magara cotton was the crop grown. However, the cotton yield was so poor that the farmers could gain no income from that, though some farmers were still expecting some money to be paid for last year’s harvest. Monoculture was applied in cotton fields, but farmers were able to practice site rotation as they usually had three plots of five feddan one of which was irrigated and occupied with cotton at a time. Farmers could use another plot to cultivate sorghum and other crops: cowpea, groundnut or soy bean, for instance.

Usually no paid labour was used in irrigated fields but some of the farmers participating in the scheme could hire labour for their rain-fed fields. For the farmers cultivating within the irrigation scheme machines were provided by the government. The scheme also provided fertilizers, and pesticides if necessary. Fertilizers were sometimes used also in the small irrigated area. Weeding was most often carried out manually within the scheme similarly with rain-fed fields.

Small-scale irrigation also operated in Magara and Abu Khadra, although in the latter only a couple of households were involved because of the cash inputs irrigation required. In Magara, small-scale irrigation was supported by a consortium of a non-governmental organisation and the Government of Southern Sudan. When the scheme started, each participating farmer was given 40 SDG and seeds to be planted in the first year. For the second year, the farmers saved money to operate the pumps and maintain the canals. The farmers had also received some help, such as pesticides, in the following years. The crops cultivated in these fields included cassava, water melon, sweet potato and vegetables, such as tomatoes, snake cucumber and Jew’s mallow. In Abu Khadra, water was brought manually from the river to small areas of land situated on the river banks. The villagers cultivated some citrus trees, tomatoes and onions on those fields.

Animal husbandry

Livestock was kept for meat, milk, and as a kind of insurance in case of an urgent need for cash. Meat and milk could also be sold; meat usually only if the livestock was large. The farmers often had goats to produce milk for the household consumption. Sometimes, yoghurt or cheese was produced of milk, also for selling. In addition, the animals could be sold when money was needed and slaughtered for special occasions. Both cows and goats had also value as dowry.

The pastoralists, in particular, regarded livestock as a sign of status. In each village studied, goats were commonly kept, while cows, as well as sheep, were mainly raised by the pastoralists. Some villagers had donkeys as pack animals. Furthermore, some villagers had poultry, mainly for their own use. Chickens could be sometimes sold but the income tended to be only a couple of Sudanese pounds.

Other sources of income

Seasonality of income was a major concern in the villages. For three months a year, farmers could receive income from their crops, but for the rest of the year, from February/March to August/September, income was very low.

The sources of income during this period included collecting of poles, firewood or grasses to be marketed in Renk, or working as paid labour. Most often the people worked as paid labour in larger farms, but some villagers found temporary work in Renk town. In Magara, many villagers worked as paid labour in irrigated fields in autumn.

Source of incomeEstimated price in
SDG¤ /unit (in 2007)
Median of interviewees’
income in 2007 (SDG)
Sorghum 25–40/sac^ 138
Groundnut 20–70/sac 140
Sesame 55/sac 1760
Karkadeh 60/sac
Cowpea 40/sac, 3/tin
Okra 5–20/sac
Tomato 5–10/container (~10l)
Cotton 40–70/guntar*
Cows 120–800/cow 3250
Goats 25–120/goat 250
Sheep 70–150/sheep 2025
Cow milk 1–4/pound 375
Goat milk 1/pound 100
Chickens 2–7/chicken, 15/rooster
Charcoal 14/sac 208
Firewood 2–3/bunch (~15 branches)
Grasses 1/bunch
Poles 1/pole
Gum arabic 70/guntar** 730
Acacia seyal 12/sac
Cosmetics produced 20/container
Salary from farm work 4–10/day^^
Fishing 3/fish
Wine making 5/container (20–25l)
Decorated sheets 25–40/decoration, (150/sheet)
Table 1. Interviewee sources of income and estimates of their prices (2007).

¤ SDG (Sudanese Guinea/Pound). =0,471988 USD or 0,320691 EUR (XE converter 25 Aug. 08)
* Estimated net after investors costs, if production is high enough to cover the costs. 1 guntar=100 pounds
** The price of gum arabic may fluctuate between 20 and 200 SDG per guntar.
^ If a farmer needed cash urgently, s/he could sell the crop before harvesting at a low price, 15 SDG/sac.
^^ 5 SDG per day was a usual salary for typical farm work, sometimes the salary was 8 SDG per day.

Women in Goz Fami and Magara gain more income from the sale of wood products of the tree Acacia seyal. Furthermore, a cosmetic product for cleaning with a fragrance was produced from pearl millet (Pennisetum typhoides) by the women in Goz Fami, and that could also be sold for a good price. Gum arabic tapped from Acacia senegal could also provide a source of income in the area. The trees were, however, scarce. The villagers attempted to protect the few trees remaining from damage caused by domestic animals or illegal loggers.

Making handicrafts for sale could provide some additional income, especially for women. Grasses, for instance, could be used for making baskets and covers. Sheets were decorated but otherwise very little handicrafts were made. Some women were decorating sheets they were given by middlemen who sold the decorated sheets in the market. The women explained that it would require some capital to start activities, to buy sewing machines, for example.

In Goz Fami, some women used to have sewing machines for private business but they had to sell them because of expensive raw material combined with marketing problems. Further sources of additional income for women included selling of food in the market (in Goz Fami) and producing wine made of sorghum (in Magara).

Fishing brought some extra income for the people in Abu Khadra and Magara, although part of the catch was consumed within a household. Fishing could have potentially provided additional income for more people than it did, but some people said that they could not afford the fishing nets and boats, and some migrants lacked experience in fishing. While many of the other activities to generate additional income mentioned above were for women, fishing was characteristically a men’s job.

Use of wood and non-wood products

Forestry activities are still dominated by exploitive utilization under low management intensity combined with no annual work plans. The commercial selling and domestic utilizing of forest products are now the last resort of income for many local households when agricultural and livestock income-generating opportunities are declining. The damaging forest income-generating activities include charcoal burning, firewood collection, wrongly conducted gum arabic tapping and collection, fodder, hunting, pod collection, and collection of leaves and fruits.

Field observations indicate that a few scattered trees are left on the smallholder farms and a complete clearance of the bush/tree vegetation has occurred on the medium and large-sized mechanised farms. This worsening situation can also directly be seen in the fact that fruit trees such as Balanites aegyptiaca or Adansonia digitata are now rarely observed in the area. Ziziphus spina-christi trees are all cut down by now.

Still some wild edible plants grow in the area that on a larger scale would have the potential to support a dryland food security. If these species would be domesticated and their yields improved they might be even better able to fulfil such a function.

Firewood was the most important wood product in the villages. Most of the interviewees (41 of 46) gathered firewood by themselves from the surrounding area, which could occupy women for a long time in a day. However, some people, particularly in Goz Fami, bought firewood from the market. Sometimes dry grasses were burned instead of firewood. Moreover, charcoal was commonly used. Half of the interviewees bought the charcoal they used. For some of the villagers, however, charcoal was too expensive for regular use. Ten of the interviewees burned it by themselves, but mainly for their own household use only. Only a few households sold charcoal and some households sold firewood. However, in Nger the production of charcoal for sale was common. Table 2 presents main trees species used and their respective uses.



Mohamed Elfadl and forestry students of Upper Nile University.

Wood was also used for construction purposes. Grasses for building were also most often gathered from the fields, river banks and elsewhere from the surroundings. Poles, however, were more often bought from the market than collected. In Goz Rum, wood could sometimes also be gathered from the nature. In addition, bamboos were used as construction material and they were bought from the market.

Scientific nameLocal nameUses
Acacia mellifera Kitir Building (bark for binding), fodder, shade, charcoal
Acacia nubica La’out Firewood, building, shade
Acacia senegal Hashab Gum arabic, fodder (pods)
Acacia seyal Talh Cosmetics, firewood, building, fodder
Azadirachta indica Neem Shade
Balanites aegyptiaca Heglig Fruits; seeds for oil, medicine, fuel; fodder
Cadaba rotundifolia Kurmut Fruits, firewood
Cordia sinensis Underab Firewood, fruits, fodder, building
Cordia africana Gambil / indrab Firewood, fruits, building
Ficus bengalensis Labakh Fruits
Grewia tenax Gudeem Fruits
Ziziphus spina-christi Sidr / nabak Fruits, medicine (from roots)
Anogeissus leiocarpus Seilaj / sahab Building, medicine (from bark)
Table 2. Trees used by the interviewees.

Non-wood forest products (NWFPs) were gathered by most women. A few respondents had gathered before but could find no NWFPs around any longer. In addition to fruits of B. aegyptiaca and of some other trees, wild Jew's mallow was commonly collected. The most typical non-wood products were grasses collected for building purposes and for sale. Furthermore, edible grasses, such as tamaleika (Gynandropsis gynandra), which was commonly used, were often gathered for food.

The pastoralists mentioned several grasses that were important for their cattle, such as diffra (Echinochloa colonum) and hamra (Euphorbia scordifolia). In Goz Fami, the NWFPs were said to be hard to find but the villagers assumed that more of them could be found in the large forest, where the pastoralists go and gather medicinal plants.


The people in the area suffered widely from absolute poverty. The lack of capital constrained development of livelihood strategies and creation of new ones. Severe degradation and deforestation have already had some negative consequences to people’s livelihood, which was largely dependent on natural resources. Potential to improve livelihood, however, existed: rehabilitation, NWFPs and improved farming systems could produce positive effects on livelihood.

In terms of human capital, one of the main weaknesses and limitations is the lack of basic education leaving the majority of people illiterate. Training and extension services, through which people could have improved their agricultural practices, were also insufficient. Knowledge on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) seemed to have, moreover, weakened as the environment was degraded. Migrants might have lacked knowledge on some aspects of livelihood; the former pastoralists, for instance, may have had only little experience on farming, and immigrants may have lacked skills in fishing. However, people generally had knowledge on farming practices in the harsh environment, such as intercropping, using trees as a shelterbelt and growing legumes in intercropping systems.

Natural capital had suffered from degradation, and the number and variety of NTFPs had decreased. On the other hand, forests and scattered trees still existed in the area. Observations that valuable tree species had started to regenerate in some areas showed that there was a good potential to improve the state of the environment. The main limiting factor was water. Moreover, due to the human activities biodiversity had decreased, both in terms of vegetation and wildlife. Access to grazing lands and their quality was a constraint for the pastoralist lifestyle. The weakened quality of soil was a threat also to farmers because of erosion, degradation and possible soil compaction caused by mechanised farming.

Physical capital in the area was largely inadequate. Water pipes were available only in some parts of the capital town of Renk. Drilled wells and water reserves were few and widely scattered. Water for domestic use was the main problem. The lack of other infrastructure was also considered as a constraint. Tools and equipment for farm work but also for other means of income generation were typically lacking. People also lacked access to information. Firewood as a source of energy could still be collected from the surrounding area of the villages, but in many cases people needed to use a longer time for firewood gathering. Charcoal was to some extent produced in the villages, but as a source of energy it was of less importance for the villagers than firewood. Charcoal was expensive and many people could not afford to buy it.

The lack of financial capital was a significant limiting factor. Available stocks were usually minimal; basically the pastoralists with large cattle were among the few who could have some available stocks for investments. Inflows of money were extremely irregular, with great intra-seasonal and inter-annual variability. Thus, the seasonality of income was high and the reliability of income was low. Villagers used to obtain some external help to finance farming or livestock but the results seemed minor at the time of the study. Furthermore, in irrigation schemes the dependence on external funding seems to be a major constraint and requires urgent attention.

In sum, rural livelihoods in Renk County are multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional. Poverty, food insecurity, inadequate land tenure systems and the exclusion from natural resources have been the main causes of conflicts. There is a need not only to develop the technical options, but also the policy and institutional options, and through that the livelihoods can be improved.


Minna Hares1, Elfadil Omer Osman2, Jorn Laxen3and Mohamed Elfadl4*


1 Viikki Tropical Resources Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland, Researcher, Sociology and Anthropology

2 Faculty of Forestry and Range Sciences, Upper Nile University, Sudan, Lecturer, Specialized in Extension and Range Management.

3. Viikki Tropical Resources Institute, Researcher in Ecological and Environmental Economics.

4 Viikki Tropical Resources Institute, University of Helsinki, Docent, Tropical Silviculture and Agroforestry.

Corresponding author ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).


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Suomen Somalia-verkosto ry
Finnish Somalia Network