Having once fled civil war, #RealLifeHero and returnee Ritah Alfred is working for FAO to support livelihoods for her fellow citizens
Ritah Alfred was born near Juba when South Sudan was still the southern region of Sudan. In 1993, she escaped the civil war that eventually led to the creation of the world's newest country. Travelling with her family to Uganda at the age of 4, Ritah was then raised by her uncle and secured a good education, finally enjoying a safe and comfortable life.
Ritah could have stayed in Uganda. Instead, as soon as she graduated from university, she returned to South Sudan to help build her new country.
"I wanted to return because I love my country, and I am proud to be South Sudanese. I strongly believed that I have a role to play to bring peace and development, so I also returned to make a difference and change in my community," she says.
Ritah first encountered FAO when working for a local custodial company hired to keep the agency's offices in Juba clean and orderly. She was impressed by the work she saw taking place. When a staff opportunity opened up on the team that manages the delivery of agricultural supplies to families in need, Ritah went for it and got it.
South Sudan is not always an easy place to work, in any sector, and humanitarian work is notoriously tough - safety concerns, cultural constraints, poor infrastructure. These are just some of the hurdles that humanitarian workers, in particular female humanitarian workers, face.
From supervising suppliers and keeping warehouses stocked to coordinating the loading of trucks and managing lifesaving items like seeds, Ritah is challenging the status quo as a woman working in logistics, a field that has been largely dominated by men. And Ritah soon faced an additional challenge -- the start of her new assignment essentially coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But she's definitely up to the challenge.
Ritah quickly adapted to the new reality. While some of her colleagues are working from home, she remains on the front line, ensuring the continuity of FAO operations in South Sudan.
"When COVID-19 was discovered, I was anxious, and I was feeling unsafe, but since I was trained on safety precautions, I've adopted the new measures of keeping safe not only myself but also the people around me," she says.
The pandemic's direct impacts - combined with the effects from the measures necessary to limit its spread - have been threatening to paralyze an already fragile food system. This in a country where 6.5 million people were already coping with acute food insecurity before the virus hit.
Today, FAO seed and tools distributions are more essential than ever for the country's vulnerable communities, as are the dedicated humanitarian workers, like Ritah, who keep FAO's operations up and running.
When Ritah arrives each morning at 8 am she sanitizes her hands and makes sure all her colleagues do the same. Then she starts working, checking the stock of items to ensure that each consignment is loaded according to release orders.
Ritah's office is the FAO warehouse in Juba. From here, seeds, farming tools and other important agricultural inputs are dispatched to the most remote areas of the country where vulnerable people still need basic inputs, like seeds, to survive.
The facility is located a few hundred metres from the international airport and serves as FAO's main logistical hub inside South Sudan. Fifty people, including managers, security guards, logistic assistants and cleaners are constantly at work to ensure seeds and farming tools are stocked, distributed and received across the country.
Thanks to innovative ways of working and adapting, FAO has been able to distribute over 9 million kilograms of seeds to farmers in South Sudan for the 2020 main planting season, despite the constraints imposed by COVID-19.
"We are still managing to work, and the seeds are moving every day and everywhere. Using digital platforms and tools, we are in constant touch with warehouses in Aweil, Bor, Juba, Kapoeta, Maban, Rumbek, Torit, Wau and Yambio," Ritah explains.
Needs are not only limited to the countryside. COVID-19 associated disruptions to food chains are affecting city dwellers in South Sudan too. FAO's vegetable gardening project improves food production and supports the nutrition and income of poor urban households, helping to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on food security.
Ritah is proud of this work - her family is too, despite worrying sometimes. "My mom video calls me every evening to check that I am fine. She always reminds me to wear a mask and take regular tests for coronavirus."
While the world works to combat COVID-19, there are many other pressing issues it cannot ignore. In South Sudan, FAO's core goal is to tackle the root causes of food insecurity. Through her work, despite challenging circumstances, Ritah is helping achieve this goal, one day at a time.
She is a food hero and a real life hero - like many others in the humanitarian community worldwide - working with passion and dedication to ensure that communities maintain their livelihoods and stay food secure, despite natural disasters, insecurity, desert locusts or COVID-19.
Ritah sees a bright future for her country.
"Things will change in South Sudan. I strongly believe that together we'll be able to fight the root causes of food insecurity. With FAO, we are doing our best to help the most vulnerable people, also helping them to learn good ways to farm and get the best produce. A striving agricultural sector is crucial to development and peace," she says.