Amiet market in Abyei Administrative Area at the Sudan-South Sudan border. Photo: UNDP

Written by: Jacqueline Aringu, Head of Experimentation

With support from the UNDP Africa Borderlands Centre (ABC), Accelerator Lab colleagues from Sudan and South Sudan country offices have set out on an exploratory journey through community immersion along the Sudan-South Sudan border. The purpose of the community immersion activities is to uncover feedback and test assumptions which could be used to improve livelihood outcomes of informal cross border traders. The immersion exercise examined the socio-economic, cultural, and political contexts of both Abyei Administrative Area and the Warawar border town of Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal as potential locations for implementing the ABC Innovation Challenge on digitization of the traditional ‘sanduk’ saving scheme among the cross border informal traders.

South Sudan AccLab team participates in community immersion in Abyei's Amiet market. Photo: UNDP

Abyei Infrastructure and Services

The Abyei “box”, as the contested area between Sudan and South Sudan is often referred to, is situated within the Muglad Basin and covers 4000 sq miles of desert and farmland. Abyei has witnessed prolonged insecurity and lacks a mutually recognized structure of governance. Due to this complexity, the area has missed out on development infrastructure, and key service provision is extremely limited or non-existant.

Our focus in Abyei was reaching Amiet joint common market, as a potential location for experimentation of the sanduk digitalization idea. Amiet market is a major transit point and has become an economic hub for traders across the two countries including foreign nationals from Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea, making the market a nerve centre of Abyei. Being one of the few places locally in which the two communities can interact and trade, it is considered an emblem of social cohesion and hope, with untapped opportunities and great resilience.

With thanks to the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) (Food and Agriculture Organization) and International Organization for Immigration (IOM) in Abyei, our team was able to access the market and source a key cross-section of interviewees. The operation of the joint market, on one hand, provides an opportunity for trade and free movement of persons within, but can also generate additional challenges if not managed. However, they have forged a way to not only peacefully co-exist but structured themselves to manage their own social affairs by forming small focal committees for health, youth (who are part of community watch), women, and more. The community cooperates with these committees. The committee for health, for example, charges traders for waste management based on the size of waste generated from their businesses.

Amiet market with poles containing the Bluetooth wireless solution to boost cellular network. Photo: UNDP

Uncovering grassroots innovation

The Amiet joint common market is a sprawling town-like area, made mostly of temporal structures densely packed, with a rich mixture of cultures vibrating through rows of stalls and store fronts. Like other contested border areas, Amiet is facing some wicked problems from as many as lack of formalized government structures, lack of development services and so on. However, in addition to the voluntary committee structures, the community has invented innovative solutions that have been adopted to solve some of the critical existing needs.

One such challenge is the lack of telecommunication/internet network, which impacts the border traders who rely on telecommunication across the two countries for transfers and receipt of goods. To address this problem, the community uses a simple Bluetooth technology solution to boost internet connectivity. See video example here. In the video, the trader activates Bluetooth on a fully charged cell phone, inserts it in a plastic bottle and into a grey cut jerrican to protect it from the sun’s heat, a true example of a phrase “innovation is not just technology.”

In Abyei’s Amiet market, we see a readiness for solutions that improve lives, and these grassroots innovations are vital for designing our own interventions to scale up these activities. Although Amiet market will not be a viable location for implementation of the immediate ABC Innovation Challenge, we envision and recommended specific support from UNDP South Sudan and Sudan which could unlock and boost trade between these communities, and with it downstream peace dividends.

Community immersion in Warawar, Norther Bahr el Ghazal. Photo: UNDP

Way Forward

While Abyei was our ideal implementation site for the ABC Innovation Challenge, this visit revealed challenges in network connectivity and infrastructure which require addressing prior to launching any digitalization project. From the South Sudan side, we have since decided to implement the project in Warawar, Northern Bahr el Ghazal -- a community of innovators we had previous contact and collaboration with. During the community immersion phase, our interaction with the Warawar group focused on inclusion of and getting buy-in from additional stakeholders, including local government. In addition to meeting the project beneficiaries, the team also met with Hon. Tong Akeen Ngor, Governor of Northern Bahr El Ghazal State, and Hon. Kiir Yor Lual, Aweil East County Commissioner.

One of the main takeaways from the Warawar community immersion mission was the support for and excitement about cultural implications of this initiative. This initiative will foster cross-cultural knowledge exchange of traditional and 21st century savings practices. The Warawar community will learn about mobile and digital banking and the formal/digital banking community gets to learn about ‘sanduk’ (a traditional pan-African savings practice).

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