In January 2011, the autonomous region of Southern Sudan is due to vote in a referendum on whether to secede from Sudan as a whole and become Africa’s newest nation. As secession looks more and more likely, improving the basic well-being of Southern Sudanese still learning to live in peacetime is a pressing priority. Five years ago the region emerged from a 20-year civil war with Sudan’s north that killed 2 million people–a conflict that pre-dated the Darfur crisis–and local leaders now face colossal challenges in providing healthcare, education and jobs to a region stunted by war. The symbol of Southern Sudan’s fast, fitful and often fluctuating progress may well be its capital, Juba, which is rumored to be Africa’s fastest-growing city and recently saw the much-vaunted opening of a brewery alongside Kenyan and Ethiopian commercial banks.
The arrival of banking services is an important development in Southern Sudan, which as late as 2003 had none at all, according to USAID’s official blog. Along with the capital’s commercial banks, microfinance–signaling access to credit for the region’s poor–has also grown. Seven years ago, USAID helped establish the Sudan Microfinance Institution (SUMI), which has made much progress:
“SUMI has disbursed more than $2.7 million in loans to 10,000 clients—half of them women—empowering entrepreneurs to launch and expand businesses such as tea houses, bakeries, restaurants, and retail shops. It has also expanded its operations to six branches in four states—Central Equatoria, Western Equatoria, Lakes, and Western Bahr el Ghazal. Two international microfinance institutions—Finance Sudan and BRAC—are also now operating in southern Sudan. There are now an estimated 45,000 active micro-loan borrowers in southern Sudan, borrowing between approximately 200 Sudanese pounds (about $80) to more than 400 Sudanese pounds (about $160). Microlending is increasing trade and improving household incomes.”
Though Southern Sudan still has a difficult path ahead if it hopes to succeed as an independent nation, even small, micro steps help.