Aweil, South Sudan, June 15 – “I sell the small bottle of cooking oil for 140 SSP. Six months ago, it was 70. The customers complain,” said James Deng, an 18-year-old stallholder in Aweil, South Sudan.
In this regional market in the country’s northwest – just as at the main Konyokonyo market in the capital Juba, 800 kilometres (500 miles) to the south, and other towns across the country – prices of essential items have rocketed as a direct consequence of almost uninterrupted civil war since December 2013.
The South Sudanese Pound (SSP) has collapsed from 18.5 to the dollar in December 2015 to around 140 now in black market transactions in Juba. Inflation has reached record levels increasing by 730 percent in the 12 months up to August 2016, according to World Bank figures.
Adam Oumar, a shopkeeper in Aweil, sells red onions for 500 SSP per ‘malua’, an iron container used as a measuring unit and containing about four kilogrammes. Only six months ago, it cost 70 pounds.
“It’s now very expensive and people can’t afford it anymore, so they take little,” he said, standing in front of his shop, well-stocked like those of his neighbours, but lacking customers.
In Konyokonyo, Saturdays used to be the busiest in the hectic market, but in early June the dense maze of uneven paths contained just a few customers, shuffling between stalls dedicated to mattresses, plastic buckets and secondhand clothing in the section run by Sudanese traders.
Vegetables are sold in an area dominated by Ugandan merchants. Kamala, a 46-year-old schoolteacher, a basket of shopping in her hand, had a frustrating morning. “I came with 6,000 pounds but just see, this basket is not filled up.” She said she received her last wages in January and it was getting harder and harder to buy the basics.
Kamala should receive 2,000 pounds a month, a salary that has not increased for years. In early 2016 it was worth about $65 (58 euros). Now it’s worth just $15. This is a particular problem in South Sudan where almost everything is imported.
“This money we are pulling out now, it’s money we saved for the future, to cater for issues of children, medicine or education for children. But this money, now we are finishing it for food,” she said.
“The first solution to this problem is for the conflict to stop. This will give us opportunity to cultivate and grow our own food,” Kamala said.
In South Sudan, 85 percent of the working population is self-employed, the overwhelming majority engage in small scale farming. But the conflict has severely disrupted agricultural production, triggering a major food crisis nationwide and even famine in some areas.
The government of President Salva Kiir understands the sensitivity of the matter and ordered food trucks from neighbouring Uganda to Juba at the beginning of May.
The influx of subsidised food was supposed to help relieve pressure on prices, but the effect was limited.
The conflict has also hit South Sudan’s oil production, its only source of foreign exchange, at the same time as global oil prices have tumbled.
“Before the crisis of 2013 we were producing 240,000 barrels per day. In 2014 up to the first half of 2015 we were producing 160,000 barrels per day. To my knowledge today we are below 130,000,” said finance minister Stephen Dhieu in an interview.
He added that the government is trying to rehabilitate some of the oil facilities damaged by fighting and increase production to around 160,000-180,000 barrels a day this year.
The country is the world’s most dependent on oil revenues, which account for almost all of its exports and for 60 percent of gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
Truckers, taxis and private individuals struggle to fill their tanks, waiting for hours in long queues outside the few petrol stations that have fuel. The alternative is the black market where, in Aweil for example, 26 year old Sadik sells a 16 litre container of petrol for 2,800 pounds, up from 1,700 six months ago.
Rather than a black market, this is, in fact, a parallel market, operating in plain sight, on a busy city road. The only time Sadik has any problems with officials, he says, is when they come to complain that traders are stockpiling fuel to push prices higher still, as he too tries to earn enough to live.