Before 2011, Sudan was Africa’s largest country by area and once the home of an ancient and powerful civilization. The Kingdom of Kush, dating back to 1070 BC, stretched 750 miles along the Nile, with ruins and pyramids at the ancient city of Meroë on the river’s east bank. The Nile remains the primary water source for Sudan. At the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, the Gezira irrigation scheme stretches over 2 million acres to provide water to tenant farmers. Built in 1912 by the British colonial government, the primary purpose of the project was to support the production of cotton.
However, led by the scheme’s governing body, farming has shifted from cotton to subsistence crops such as sorghum, wheat, and groundnuts. Area harvested for cotton has dropped by 88 percent between 1970 and 2014. A combination of factors have led to this shift, including declining competitiveness of the once-prominent Sudanese long staple cotton in favor of cheaper alternatives. Additionally, the Sudanese government has strategically introduced wheat and groundnuts into cotton areas, intending to make the country more self-sufficient.
Nut oil processing has been touted as one of the oldest industries in Sudan, when camel-driven mills were established to process sesame seed and groundnuts. This evolved to the use of mechanical screw presses. Today, solvent extraction is used for sesame seed oil.
Sesame seed farming in Sudan
The British government introduced mechanized agriculture to the cracking clays of the Sudanese Gedarif state in 1944-45 to produce sorghum for their Eastern African colonies. Sesame plants require 50 percent less water than cotton and 66 percent less water than sorghum, partly due to an extensive root system, which also makes the plant highly drought-tolerant.
Sesame thrives in well-drained neutral pH soils, but grow well in almost all types of soil and can even improve soil quality. This may be one of the reasons why the producers in the area have shifted to farming the crop. Today, Gedarif is known for the quality of its sesame seeds. Additionally, the state enjoys proximity to Port Sudan for exports. The state has been referred to as the country’s breadbasket, producing 62,000 tonnes of sesame seeds in the 2016 -2017 market year alone, the largest output of all Sudanese states. Gedarif is known to use imported labor, mainly from neighboring Ethiopia, especially during the sesame harvest season.
Over 2.5 million rainfed hectares of Sudan’s cultivable land is under sesame seed production. Concentrated mainly in the clay plains of east and central Sudan, 53 percent of sesame farming is mechanized. Approximately 77 percent of the area devoted to sesame seed farming in Sudan is in three states: North Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Gedarif.
Erratic weather conditions, lack of infrastructure, and an absence of supportive policy have held back producers despite expansive farming and relatively easy access to external markets.
Bringing water to the desert
In the 2015-2016 market year, 5,975 acres of sesame seeds were planted with 40 percent of the area under mechanized, rainfed cultivation. Higher yields were consistently reported by the mechanized sector. Even with one of the largest single irrigation schemes in the world, arable land equipped for irrigation has declined from 14.6 percent in 1992 to just 9.6 percent in 2016. This leaves the majority of producers susceptible to increasingly erratic weather conditions.
A large part of Sudan is considered to be desert, with the Nubian desert in the North receiving less than 125 mm of annual rainfall on average. The rains arrive in July with moist, southwesterly winds from the Congo basin. The southern part of Sudan, now mainly part of South Sudan, receives rain from as early as April. However, the winds rarely reach the dry upper north and hardly ever reach the Egyptian border.
In the desert, semi-desert, dense savannah, and equatorial zones of Sudan, sesame planting takes place in mid-July while the ground is still moist. Any delay in sowing, which may occur due to lack of seeds, will adversely affect yields. The harvest lasts 85 days, with the plant having grown 20 to 60 inches after planting, in the drier months of September and October. Due to Sudan’s extreme heat, the time to maturation is shorter than the 90 to 120 days assumed for most commercial sesame seeds.
Pests are a major issue plaguing Sudan’s sesame seed production. The lygaeid bug, or sesame seed bug—found prominently in the clay soils of central Sudan—depletes the seed’s oil content thus reducing overall quality and quantity. Of the seeds that make it to harvest, losses may occur from poor threshing and storage.
Losses may also occur when the capsule housing the seeds bursts as a result of non-uniform maturation, a process known as dehiscence. Additionally, the small seeds are susceptible to spoilage caused by air circulation. As a result of these vulnerabilities, the seeds are especially labor intensive during the harvest.
Most of the sesame cultivated area is rainfed. Smallholder farms account for the majority of growers, but they are separated from each other and markets by inadequate infrastructure. Oilseeds are transported from crop markets to Port Sudan via road. Taxes and fees, including port levies from 30 to 80 percent of total fees, are collected between the farmgate and the world market. Despite these costs, sesame seeds continue to be competitive. On average, 44 percent of sesame seeds produced in Sudan are exported. The main markets for Sudanese sesame seeds are Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia. The US trade sanctions implemented in July 1997 by the Clinton administration restricted trade of all commodities except gum arabic. The measure, issued to pressure the Sudanese government into reforming their political agenda, has adversely affected financial flows and technological advancements in the country.
The US remains a net importer of sesame seeds. In 2016, the US imported 31,929 tonnes of sesame seeds, 56 percent of which came from India...and none from Sudan. Perhaps an end to the 20-year long trade sanctions may result in expanded trade and improved relations between the two countries.
Oilseed exports in the 1970s were monopolized by four companies, which later formed the now-defunct Sudanese Oil Seeds Company. The government allowed the privatization of the agricultural sector with the intent to join the World Trade Organization in 1992. The current fluctuation in production could be attributed to this decision to reduce subsidies, set prices, and privatize. Even after liberalization, select principal commodities such as gum arabic, hides, livestock, and oilseeds were given minimum floor prices. However, price regulation has, over time, lacked sufficient government support in the form of infrastructure, human resources, and institutional capacity. Currently, there are no policies on exports of oilseeds that protect and support the producers or regulate middlemen and exporters.
Sudan has managed to sustain its sesame seed export industry despite famine, civil war, secession, and trade sanctions. It’s an impressive story of resilience and adaptability to unfavorable weather conditions, but the country’s yields have remained well below the global average, and are only a fraction of the Sub-Saharan average. Any increase in production is attributed to expansion in cultivated area rather than improvement of seed breeding and farming techniques. Sudan remains a net exporter of the commodity, but continued fluctuations in production and low yields reduce the competitiveness of its oilseeds. As global demand for the protein-rich seed continues to rise, with uses in baked products, animal feed, lactose-free milk, cosmetics, and medicines, other producers have stepped in to meet demand. Tanzania and Nigeria are steadily increasing production and exports. Perhaps the heyday of the Sudanese oilseed may be coming to an end.
If US trade sanctions are lifted in July, this may be a step in the right direction for the country. The trade sanction will only be lifted if the Sudanese government shows a commitment to address human rights issues among other stipulations. The potential for expanded trade with the US may be enough incentive for the Sudanese government to set up and sustain policies in support of oilseed exports.
Year after year, resilient tiny sesame seeds continue to blossom in war-torn Sudan. However, the crop may lose its competitiveness against rising producers altogether unless the government takes necessary action.