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Somalia tries to develop a sugar-cane and sugar-export industry

Poverty-stricken Somalia has the reputation of being a virtual disaster area. For example, it is almost always at war with neighboring Ethiopia over the Ogaden Desert area that marks part of the border between the two nations.

This, in turn, causes a continuous stream of starving, homeless refugees to pour daily in somalia. At present the refugees total some 1.2 million people, whom the country is poorly equipped to care for.

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Yet behind this scene of war and misery, isolated patches of real development occur in this largely undeveloped country of desert, wild bush, and nomadic people.

The biggest grass-roots development scheme so far launched in Somalia is the Juba River sugar project in southern Somalia where Arab oil millions and Western technology are turning the desert green with sugar-cane plantations.

Water from the overhead sprinkler irrigation from the Juba River sparkles in the tropical sunshine. A great white sugar mill has loomed up from the desert scrub, surrounded by houses for workers and technical staff.

This little Indian Ocean port in southern Somalia is one of the sea exits for Somalia's only exports, bananas and cattle. Soon it will be the port for the thousands of tons of sugar, which will at first go to the capital, Mogadishu, to feed the Somalis' passion for sugar -- and maybe after that to be exported.

The Juba sugar project is some 90 miles from here in the desert scrub, on the banks of Somalia's second river, the Juba. After only two months of production workers are cutting 1,000 tons of cane a day to make 100 tons of sugar.

The Arabs of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) have sunk $ 188 million into the prject. It was built by British engineering firms such as Wimpey and Mowlem, and is being managed by Britain's Booker Agriculture International Ltd., which has sugar projects all over the world, including in neighborng Kenya.

The American Irrigation and Industrial Development Corporation put in the overhead irrigation system, an expensive undertaking over a projected 8,000 hectares of cane.

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In four years it is estimated that Juba will be producing 70,000 tons of sugar a year. An expansion, already planned, could bring this figure to 100,000 tons a year.

By that time the project will be employing about 4,000 Somalis. Labor, according to the management, is something of a problem. The surrounding desert does not yield much labor and there are few villages in the area. The sugar project is now employing many refugees from the Ogaden. There are mostly nomadic people who have never worked with their hands.

"First, we have to teach them the concept of actually working before teaching them what to do in the cane fields and factory," says Mike Johnson, the general manager.

Food for so many workers does not exist in this arid area and it is too early for food to be grown. So most of it is brought in frm Mogadishu by the Somali goverment. Supplies for the 90 expatriate white engineers, agriculturists, irrigation experts, and management men are flown in from Britain.

Communications also are a problem. There is no telephone to anywhere, and the radio telephone is often out of action. Flights to the little Juba airstrip come in from Nairobi, Kenya, and Chisimaio, Somalia, and almost all the equipment is brought in this way. The roads to Mogadishu and Chisimaio often are impassable as a result of floods.

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