Elaine Smith

The drought and famine in South Sudan isn’t an abstract problem to James Thuch Madhier, a third-year peace, conflict and justice student at the Munk School of Global Affairs – it’s personal.

Madhier fled South Sudan to a Kenyan refugee camp as a teenager to escape the ravages of a civil war. He remembers the horrific famine that occurred in 1998.

“Even during the war, I never saw the horrific things I saw during the famine,” Madhier said. “Thiet, my hometown, attracted people from all over the countryside who were suffering. In the mornings, you’d see the collection of people who had died of hunger overnight. Sights like these are toxic to the brain.”

He hoped this devastation was the last his country would see of famine, but during the past three years, the drought, flooding and war have resulted in another famine, declared officially by the UN in Feb 2017. After a trip to the Ivory Coast last year to research issues surrounding cocoa farming, Madhier realized that the problems of drought and food insecurity were much more widespread in Africa than he’d realized and decided to do something about it – not a quick fix solution, but something that would effect systemic change.

“Today, I know there has been technological advancement that could be used to lift people out of extreme hunger and food insecurity,” said Madhier.

Together with his colleagues, Mike Hongryul Park, a math and physics student with a passion for sustainable development and Katie Fettes, a peace, conflict and justice student at the Munk School, Madhier developed a basic, solar-powered crop irrigation system that can also provide clean drinking water. Eighty per cent of South Sudan’s residents are farmers or raise cattle; only 5.1 per cent of the population has electricity; and only 30 per cent of residents have access to clean drinking water. Madhier’s system, which includes a pump, a holding tank for the seasonal flood waters, solar panels to generate power and drip irrigation, is easy to install and use.

“We’ve adapted the system in a way that will not only irrigate food crops and provide grazing grass for cattle, but will offer employment to women and youth and address issues of food insecurity,” Madhier said.

In 2016, Madhier, who has long been active with social development programs, was invited by the One Young World organization to attend a global summit for young social changemakers. The summit included a social venture competition, and Madhier and Park decided it would be the perfect opportunity to seek assistance with the irrigation project. He pitched the idea at this summit and won a fellowship award as well as some seed capital and access to professionals who can mentor him in areas where he needs help implementing his strategy.

In March of this year, he and his team formally launched Rainmaker Enterprise in partnership with Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier-turned-musician from South Sudan. They have purchased 20 acres in South Sudan to begin the irrigation project during the coming November dry season.

The land will be divided so that cows can graze on a portion while crops are grown on the remainder; it will allow for crop rotation so the land remains productive for both food and grazing. Madhier has a local field manager who will hire a local team to assist him, creating a self-sustaining enterprise.

“I see it as a model that we can scale up across the country and region,” Madhier said. “I believe in a ground-up approach. It’s a way for local farmers to increase production and efficiency so that they are not simply doing subsistence farming.”

April 28, 2017