East African traders flourishing in Juba

My article on East Africans living in Juba has now been published by africanews. You can read it here in the original.

More than two years have passed since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the long running conflict in Sudan, and Juba, the capital of the new government of southern Sudan, is being transformed into a boom town.

On Juba's dirt roads, UN vehicles raise clouds of dust as they pass the East African traders who have flocked here in increasing numbers since the end of the war. 

And while the development agencies are providing much needed money and resources, it is the traders from Kenya and Uganda who are bringing in the supplies to sustain the boom. 

"During the war there was nothing", said Amanda, a Sudanese women trading at the edge of the bustling Customs market. Government-controlled Juba was surrounded by rebel forces throughout the war, and supplies had to be flown in from Khartoum.

Though memories of the war are still strong in Juba, the economic situation has been completely transformed. Trucks now regularly arrive bringing water, food and commodities from Kampala. These trucks also bring enterprising Kenyans and Ugandans, looking to make their fortune in the new Sudan. 

"There are two United Nations here. The UN, and us", Herman told me. He had first arrived from Kenya four months ago, and was astonished to see the mix of nationalities that had been drawn by the lucrative opportunities of Juba. "At first, I slept outside", he said, before a family connection gave him the opportunity to rent out a camp site. 

While the development agencies live in fully equipped tents with electricity and running water, Herman's camp is situated on the edge of a strip of waste land covered with the ruins of tanks. Opposite the camp, on the other side of the wasteland, a fleet of gleaming 4x4's stands testament to a booming business in luxury goods.

Like many of the East African traders, Herman first came to Juba on the advice of a friend. The traders travel on the overland route from Kampala, which can take up to five days, and has seen several shootings in the past two months. Business begins small. "Initially I just brought 30 phones, and when I had sold them I would go back to Nairobi and buy more," Herman said. The camp he now runs is full of people with similar stories, attracted by the high prices of goods and the possibility of making money to take home. "I can make more money here in a week than I could in Nairobi in a year", said Joseph, one of Herman's friends.

Juba is only the end point of a journey that sees a more informal globalisation springing up alongside the development agencies and international commodity markets. Eunice, a 30 year old Kenyan woman, explained to me how she takes orders for goods in Juba, before returning to Nairobi, and then going to Dubai to purchase the items. Her principle business, mobile phones, has slowed recently. The main provider in Juba, Gemtel, has stopped issuing SIM-cards because the network is overloaded with demand. In Juba, the infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the quickly increasing demands of the population.

But even this lack of infrastructure has led to commercial opportunities. Juba resembles an enormous construction site, with buildings constantly going up to accommodate the new government or to house development projects. Abdullah, a Ugandan man who arrived in January 2007, found work in construction, and has now done well enough to set up his own company.

Despite the money to be made, many East Africans find life in Juba hard to bear. "It is too hot, and the dust covers you the moment you get outside your tent", Abdullah told me. The high prices that mean traders can turn such substantial profits also have a double edge, "everything here is expensive, and if you ever want to enjoy yourself, you quickly spend all the money you make", Herman said. Things are made by worse by the difficulties in communication. Though English is to be the language of governance in southern Sudan, Juba's main language is Arabic, and it can make interacting with the Sudanese difficult for the English speaking East Africans.

A few traders complained about being harassed by southern Sudanese, but the Sudanese residents I spoke to seemed to be happy to have the Kenyan and Ugandan traders here. "They sheltered us during the war", said Tut Jok, a young man working for the new government, "it is only right that we do something in return." Southern Sudanese law states that any new company must have a Sudanese director, and now many of the Sudanese who have returned to Juba from East Africa are using the friendships they made there to set up new businesses with the Kenyan and Ugandan traders.

Despite these growing friendships, few East Africans think they will stay in Sudan for long. "I am always ready to go", Herman tells me, "the moment war breaks out, I will leave." Continuing insecurity over the future of Sudan means few East Africans are willing to make a long term investment in the country. On January 24, unknown gunmen opened fire at the Customs Market, the centre for much of the East African trading community, killing one Ugandan man and wounding five others.

So while Herman is expanding his business, branching out into a small movie tent, soft drinks production and clothes, he cannot see his future in southern Sudan. "After two years here I will go home, hopefully with enough money to build a house", he tells me, "this country is not for us." 

With oil money finally flowing from the CPA, which states that the South gets 50% of Sudan's oil revenue, and development agencies investing a great deal in projects in southern Sudan, money is not scarce. Combine that with an absence of basic infrastructure, the needs of a new government, and a town in which everything needs to be imported, and you have the ingredients of an economic boom. However, with the CPA not fully implemented, and continuing insecurity in Darfur and parts of the South, it remains to be seen whether this boom will result in concrete change. Until it does, the East African community in Juba will continue looking anxiously to the future.