Sudan hopes technology will transform farming

DAL farm
Image caption The explosion of green at the Oasis is in stark contrast to its desolate surroundings

It's called the Oasis - Al Waha in Arabic - and that's exactly what it looks like.

The farm is an hour's drive from the Sudanese capital Khartoum, along a tarmac road cutting through the fringes of a desert the colour of digestive biscuits.

The desolate surroundings highlight Sudan's reputation as one of the least developed places on earth.

But the Oasis itself is an explosion of green from the drab colours around it. Vast, verdant crop circles cluster round canals bringing in water from the Blue Nile.

In Sudan, many farming stories start with a river, but this is a long way removed from most Sudanese farms.

Al Waha uses the very latest technologies.

Centre pivots irrigation systems roll smoothly around, spraying out water and fertiliser in electronically-controlled circles.

Lack of finance

The main crop here is alfalfa, which is used as fodder. Most of it is sold abroad, particularly in the Gulf.

But DAL - the giant Sudanese company which owns Al Waha - is one of the few carrying out this type of agriculture, and this brings it own problems.

"There aren't enough suppliers around, so we struggle with getting spare parts," says Tarig Mohamed Kheir, the farm's operations manager.

Sudan's fading economy is a worry too: "The other major challenge is the finance, there isn't enough finance available for this sort of large-scale farming using very expensive equipment."

Nevertheless, the centre pivots have proved a smart investment.

Air-conditioning for cows

A few kilometres up the road, at DAL's dairy farm, there is further evidence of the benefits cutting edge technology can bring.

Image caption The system that keeps DAL's foreign cows cool is similar to that used in some upmarket cafes

Sudanese cows are often skinny animals, their ribs protruding through their hides.

DAL has brought in foreign cows from Australia, the Netherlands and elsewhere, as they produce more milk.

But these foreign cows struggle in the Sudanese sun, so they spend most of their time in air-conditioned barns, luxuriating in a spray of cooling water.

A similar system is used in Khartoum's most upmarket cafes, to keep the patrons from overheating over their cappuccinos.

'Five times the offspring'

Each cow also wears an electronic necklace that transmits data about the animal's health, and even its readiness to breed, to a central control centre.

"Most of the farms in Sudan are just primitive, cows there are mainly milked by hand and in the open," says Dr Mohamed Said, the farm's manager.

Image caption The farm's operators monitor the health of the cows via electronic necklaces that they wear

He oversees machine milking, in which 56 cows can be milked in 10 minutes, before the milk is stored in hygienic tanks.

The cows are inseminated artificially and embryo transfer technology is also used, according to Dr Said.

"We can produce five times the number of offspring compared to the normal breeding ways," he says.

The idea is to produce hundreds of Sudanese "super cows" that will produce much more milk than local breeds.

Sugar cure?

In Khartoum North, DAL's $50m (£30.6m) factory churns out packaged, pasteurised milk, as well as yoghurt.

DAL is unusual but not unique in its ability to pay for the latest technology.

Some other big agricultural companies, often foreign-owned, are investing in centre pivots, for example.

The state, meanwhile, is heavily involved in sugar production.

In July 2012, President Omar al-Bashir opened a new sugar factory in White Nile state, an $800m project with ambitions to make Sudan one of the region's biggest exporters.

Sugar was first touted as a cure for Sudan's economic woes in the 1970s, when foreign investors, including British businessman Tiny Rowland, helped set up the Kenana sugar project.

Oil impact

In fact, agriculture has always played a key part in the modernising wave in Sudan.

During colonial times, the British created the vast Gezira scheme, an irrigated area between the Blue Nile and the White Nile that produced cotton for the factories of north west England.

Image caption When South Sudan seceded, it took most of the oil with it; the Sudanese government later removed fuel subsidies which led to protests

Today the Gezira scheme still operates, but is a shadow of its former self.

Irrigation canals have not been properly maintained, and production is much lower than it should be.

Agriculture, like the rest of the Sudanese economy, was neglected once oil started flowing in 1999.

"They forgot all about farming once they started making money from oil," Mohamed, a farmer, says with some bitterness.

He makes money each year hiring out the two bulldozers he owns to clear out irrigation canals in Gezira, but is sad at how rundown it has become.

When South Sudan seceded in 2011, it took with it most of the oil, so the focus is back on agriculture.

Weather dependent

But most Sudanese agriculture is "quite limited", says economist Haj Hamad, as it is based around seasonal rain falls.

"We should use drought-resistant seeds, and have better soil management," he says.

"Basically most of [the produce] goes to rural households as food security. At the end of the rainy season, they make the harvest, then go into towns to get cash."

For farmers like Mohamed in Gezira, the gleaming machines and air-conditioned cows at DAL's farms seem like a different world.

Image caption DAL's machine milking allows multiple cows to be milked simultaneously in a short space of time

If you have the money, high-tech agriculture pays.

Osama Daoud, the head of DAL, says the agriculture sector is one of the most profitable in his vast business, which includes flour, cars and Coca-Cola, among other things.

"We have shown that we can make agriculture profitable [in Sudan]," he says.

Recently, the US has lifted sanctions on agriculture in Sudan, so there is hope that this will enable the sector to develop further.

This will take time, however - as Haj Hamad says, US companies are unlikely to flood into Sudan after so many years' absence, and because of the continuing concerns over human rights.

So Sudan's high-tech agriculture is set to continue to be a limited - if profitable - part of its economy.

But Mr Daoud is optimistic. "I hope we have a success story here," he says, adding that he hopes others can emulate it.

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