Sauri — Haruni Odhiambo Nyariru is making an addition to his home. Martin Omondi Onyango bought a cow and a goat, covers his younger brother's school fees and is building a house for his mother.
Now that she is harvesting 30 bags of maize (of 90 kilogrammes each) instead of 12 from her two acres, Wilfreda Ongonda Ochieng says that her family is eating better and that she has a surplus to sell. These farmers attribute the small but real changes in their lives to gains made since the advent of the Sauri Millennium Villages Project in western Kenya.
For their higher yields and incomes, they credit new seed varieties and fertilizers. "I used to apply fertilizer before, but since the Millennium project, we have gotten a real boost from the fertilizers," says Wilfreda, a 45-year-old widow who heads a homestead of 11 people, counting some of her children and a few in-laws.
Launched in 2004, the Sauri project was the first of what would grow to become 14 clusters of Millennium Development Villages (MDVs) in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The MDVs receive concentrated support from a slew of foundations and companies - including an A-list of brand names like Sumitomo, which provides mosquito nets, and Ericsson, which donates mobile phones to health workers and others.
The effort is led by a triumvirate comprised of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the New York-based non-profit Millennium Promise and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, also in New York. The village clusters are meant to serve as pilot projects that can be expanded and repeated elsewhere as part of the broader effort to attain the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, as set by a UN summit in 2000. The MDGs include specific targets for things like poverty reduction, health and the empowerment of women.
The 11 villages that comprise the Sauri cluster are home to an estimated 75,000 people, covering an area of 132 square kilometers. Some 98 per cent of households are engaged in some form of farming.
The jump in Wilfreda's maize yield may seem remarkable. Yet it is about average for participants in the programme. The overall average yield is up threefold. Partly as a result, chronic infant malnutrition is down significantly. "The seeds and fertilizer gave us some quick wins," says Jessica Massira, the project team leader and cluster manager.
With yields on the upswing, the programme has been able to focus on diversification, providing farmers with multiple income streams that flow at different times of the year, thus cushioning them against low prices during the post-harvest glut.
"Farmers need food but they also need money," says Ms. Massira. "With horticulture, dairy farming and fish farming, farmers can quickly pick up extra cash. We have had remarkable results." As Willy Diru, agriculture coordinator, put it, "After food security, we started working with a range of enterprises. Onions, tomatoes, cabbages and chili peppers - there is also a cooperative for fresh produce."
School lunches, mosquito nets
With better and more diversified yields, farmers are contributing to a school lunch programme that is credited with helping to boost school attendance to 94 per cent in the Sauri project area. Kids around the world may often hate going to school, but for poor kids and their families in rural Africa, "attendance for lunch" seems a reasonable trade-off.
Statistically verifiable gains extend beyond agriculture and its spin-offs. Communities have protected over 200 springs, which serve drinking water to more than 26,000 people. They have built walls and installed pipes to channel drinking water into faucets for collection. Villagers have built fences to keep livestock away from sources meant for human consumption. As a result, access to improved water supplies in Sauri has jumped from under 40 per cent in 2006 to about 90 per cent today.
Health problems are also being addressed. Notable is the reduction in the incidence of malaria with the distribution of mosquito nets and frequent testing by health workers who make home visits. The prevalence of malaria in the region dropped from 45 per cent in 2005 to 7 per cent in 2008.
Despite those statistics, the Millennium Development Villages have received a barrage of criticism. Most comes from development workers, social-environmental activists and academics, but it hits from all directions:
- Reliance on imported fertilizer will create dependence on those inputs.
- Intensive agriculture will place strains on the water supply and soil, leading to negative side effects akin to those in India after the Green Revolution.
- Barriers to development that come from outside the villages themselves, notably corruption, are ignored.
- Data that compares progress between MDVs and those that do not receive such aid is scarce, making it hard to evaluate the effectiveness of the effort.
- Too much time, money and attention is focused on too few people.
The accusations go on, and often vary according to the ideological or political orientation of the critics. But one issue persists, partly because it is fundamental to the MDV strategy: aid dependence - and efforts to reduce it. The MDVs might be the only large-scale development effort whose proponents truly aspire to develop an exit strategy. But will it be successful?
Success in reducing aid dependence is easier to imagine where independent revenue streams can be created, as with higher agricultural yields and diversification in farming. For example, fertilizer, while donated by manufacturers, is not given to farmers for free. Instead it is provided as a loan that farmers pay back at harvest time. The relationship becomes a commercial one, less likely to foster dependency than handouts. Schools are raising money by allowing people to use their computers to print documents after classes.
However, a visit to Sauri's sister project, the Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) in Kisumu, the provincial capital, demonstrates just how difficult achieving self-sufficiency can be in the health sector. According to one hospital worker, the Millennium project tops up supplies of things like disposable medical gloves that the government is supposed to provide but does not, either in sufficient numbers or in a timely fashion. Foreigners maintain the ambulances that traverse the territory, and the Israeli government brought its own materials and team to build the sparkling emergency room at the Kisumu hospital. "The Israelis brought in everything and did it all in 17 days," said Belinda Opiyo-Omolo, MCI public health specialist. "I am sorry to say it, but Kenyans maybe would have taken six months. But it was good for the locals to see that if you put your mind to it you can do it."
"Sustainability is a challenge," admitted Ms. Massira, when asked about the health sector. "We realize the need to demonstrate and hand things over to the government and the people. If the people become accustomed to the services, they will demand them from the government."
Bart Knols, chairman of the advisory board of the Dutch Malaria Foundation, has visited Sauri and has extensive experience in Africa. He called the anti-malaria effort "commendable, in the sense that efforts to offer a complete 'package' [drugs, vaccination, health and education] may bear fruit." But he quickly added, "Where I am more skeptical is in the sustainability of this approach when handing over takes place and the Kenyan government has to supply these services."
Picking up the ball
Beyond the capacity of governments, another measure of sustainability is whether people in the communities pick up the ball and run with it. There is some evidence that this is happening. For example, farmers who want to try bee-keeping are organized into groups of 10 to work together. The groups choose one member to receive extra training, who then returns to pass along the lessons. Jared Omondi Onyango, Martin's brother, learned how to build and maintain greenhouses with the Sauri project. Now he builds them for others.
The most interesting initiative in community self-sufficiency may be the Manyatta B residents' water task force, which supplies running water to 8,000 households in Kisumu and has been adopted as a partner by the MCI. After an initial grant from the French government, the community organized itself to build and run the system. They charge themselves a fair price, but one considerably lower than the rates commanded by private water truck operators. The revenue allows them to maintain the system, with enough cash left over to train and hire locals to run it.
Among international observers, the jury may still be out on the Millennium Development Villages. But for the most part local people seem positive. "I think they will succeed because the programme was made to last," comments Stephen Onduu, procurement officer at the Kisumu hospital. "They will succeed if they sit down the community and talk about the exit strategy."
Bill Hinchberger is a freelance journalist and communications consultant based in Paris, France. He visited Kenya with a project organized by the Brussels-based European Journalism Centre and paid for by the Dutch government.