Salma Abouelhossein is a PhD student in urban studies and planning at Harvard University. Her research interests are in urbanization and crisis, the materialities of the finance economy, depeasantization and labor. Her dissertation studies the entangled ways in which agrarian change in the Nile Valley was constitutive of emergent urbanizations in the Middle East in the last three decades of the twentieth century. Focusing on two sugarcane production regions in Egypt and Sudan, her work builds upon critiques to inherited urban/agrarian divides and approaches the Nile Valley as a space of urbanization. She is specifically interested in the contested and entangled relations of labor, land, and finance. Salma’s doctoral research is supported by the Agha Khan Fellowship at Harvard, IJURR foundation, and Harvard’s Center for African Studies. She holds a Bachelor of Architectural Engineering from the American University in Cairo (2012), where she was awarded the Leadership for Education and Development (LEAD) scholarship. She also holds a Master’s of Science with Distinction in Planning and Development from the Bartlett, University College London (‘14). Before starting her PhD, Salma worked for three years as a planner and consultant in collaboration with local municipalities, local NGOs, and international development agencies in Egypt.
Regional Fields of Finance: Sudan’s Sugarcane Plantation Dreams
In May 2019, amid the Sudanese revolution, over one thousand workers in the Kenana sugarcane company in the White Nile state in Sudan started an open strike. Since then, the Kenana workers have organized a series of strikes leading to blocking the road from the Kenana to Khartoum, preventing the movement of goods to the capital city. The workers demanded unionization, better working conditions, fair wages, and direct contracts with the company. Not only did the cascade of strikes include the factory workers, but also seasonal workers on the plantation and truck drivers.
According to the Kenana’s official website, the sugarcane complex has developed into Africa’s largest sugar-producing agro-industrial complex and the world’s largest producer of white sugar. The company was established in 1976 with investments from the Sudanese government, the public investment authority of Kuwait, the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, the Arab Authority for Agriculture Investment and Development (AAAID), and several Sudanese and Arab banks. The project was the centerpiece of president Nimeri’s (1969-85) agricultural development project that was centered on realizing a regional project of turning Sudan into the ‘breadbasket’ of the Arab World (Elnur, 2009; Woertz, 2013). Since 2008, Kenana has grown its shareholders, intensified its production, expanded its scope, and established sophisticated R&D units. Several sub-companies, including the White Nile Sugar company, were inaugurated. Additionally, the company expanded its production to ethanol, animal feed, and electricity.
Meanwhile, the financialization of the Kenana Sugar Company was accompanied with further ‘flexibilization’ of labor arrangements, cancellation of direct contracts and the dependence of intermediary hiring companies for seasonal workers to perform arduous work in the factory, fields, and on trucks. Additionally, Kenana’s social responsibility projects have been in many ways a major lever to mitigate risks arising from the violent land and livelihood dispossessions that the company has engendered.
The Kenana is one of several sugarcane plantations that constitute Sudan’s emerging sugarcane belt in the northern region. This belt is one of the main priorities of Sudan’s Agricultural Revival Program in 2007 that was developed to attract GCC investors to Sudanese agriculture. Based on fieldwork and archival research, this paper studies the relations of financialization, ecology, and labor in Sudanese sugarcane plantations and their supporting villages and Agro-towns since the mid-1970s. Focusing on the development of the Kenana factory, this paper posits that new uneven geographical developments in the Arab region since the mid-1970s depended on configuring urban-rural relations regionally. The boom in city growth and city building in Gulf states depended on ‘global rural hinterlands’ to which the Nile Valley of Sudan played a crucial role. Concurrent with a shift to open-door policies, several countries in the Middle East such Egypt and Sudan, gradually abandoned their state-developmentalist rural-urban plans and configured their agrarian landscapes in relation to regional urbanization processes. Starting from the plantation, this paper follows the entangled relations of financialization, ecology, social reproduction, struggle, and the state in the Nile Valley of Sudan to argue that if “the Arab region has an agrarian question?” (Ajl, 2020), this question needs to be studied regionally, contending with the hegemonic political and economic role of the Gulf
states and Gulf capitalist urbanization processes since the mid-1970.
Affiliation: Harvard University, USA