Coffee and Peacebuilding in South Sudan (Part II)

Can coffee production contribute to peace in a war-torn African country? On its face, that would seem like a facile link. But sustainable peace is not won solely through negotiations and foreign aid.
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Can coffee production contribute to peace in a war-torn African country? On its face, that would seem like a facile link. But sustainable peace is not won solely through negotiations and foreign aid. Responsible private investment in support of the diversification of the economy of a country struggling for peace is also an important pillar of peacebuilding.

Last week Huffington Post carried a piece where I laid out this very argument in the South Sudan context: that responsible private investment would be a critical pillar for long-term peacebuilding. I used the example of the revival of coffee production as illustrative of what South Sudanese communities could achieve even in the midst of conflict. But perhaps my piece lacked sufficient context, as it elicited some critiques on social media. Since I am not on twitter, but the critiques are important to answer, I wanted to respond in more than 140 characters to the mischaracterizations in some of the tweets, so here is my elaboration on the topic of investment in support of peacebuilding in South Sudan.

The gist of the tweets focused on the idea that it is an overstatement to say that coffee farms would bring peace, and that there isn't peace now in the broader region where coffee farming is restarting, so the premise that coffee could contribute to peacebuilding isn't credible.

It's important to provide some context that my last article didn't, and maybe that could provide a partial answer to the cynicism about the idea that in order for peace to be sustainable, economic development must be spurred through a variety of mechanisms. Foreign aid is certainly helpful, but it is ultimately a small component of development in most post-conflict contexts. Private investment -- both locally generated and foreign -- is a crucial component of the development that must undergird peacebuilding efforts. And the more socially conscious and transparent that investment is, the better it can contribute to the greater good.

Now onto the specific South Sudan context. Despite continued violence, insecurity in Juba, and serious doubts over whether or not the peace agreement signed on August 26 will hold, the economic woes facing South Sudan have forced the government to look at other potential sources of revenue. Land is one of the most available and abundant resources in South Sudan, and is also at high risk of exploitation, once again at the expense of communities. Responsible investment and economic diversification therefore would be crucial pillars of reconstruction in South Sudan, and would reinforce local citizens' demands for a responsible, transparent, and accountable government that is capable of upholding South Sudanese law, protecting rights, and ensuring corporations and investors do so as well.

The high risk nature of investing in South Sudan has put many responsible investors off. The opaque way in which contracts and concessions have been awarded is not unusual, especially in a country that has experienced far more conflict than peace, but the need to slowly transform the way of doing business in South Sudan is as urgent as ever.

Coffee is just one small example of an agricultural sector that has great potential for building the wealth of South Sudanese communities. With increasing consumer demand, this kind of investment can be socially responsible. Many consumers care where their coffee comes from. This encourages some companies to invest in socially sustainable ways.

As reported by Technoserve, the Nespresso project so far has focused on training 500 farmers in Central Equatoria state to build competitive coffee farms and wet mill businesses for export production. The idea is to provide consumers globally with a new source of coffee from the world's youngest nation. Farmers are receiving a premium 40 percent above the market price for their coffee in South Sudan and the project is planned to expand to Western and Eastern Equatoria states. Twelve metric tons of export-grade coffee were already purchased by Nespresso during these last two years.

Responsible investment is possible in South Sudan, and such investment is a small part of a larger context of peacebuilding. At the end of the day, sweeping reforms are also necessary so that South Sudan's government is accountable to its own citizens, and so that citizens can demand that their rights are protected. In the meantime, investments are moving forward and such initiatives have the potential to pave the way forward for what responsible investment looks like in South Sudan, and ultimately sustainable peace. There is a long road ahead to lasting peace, but investments like these that benefit local communities and build wealth make that road a little shorter.

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