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Innovative Villages Seek to Ease Poverty in Africa

Sauri, in western Kenya, is one of a dozen so-called Millennium Villages set up across the continent by American and African development experts and funded by governments and private donors. Local committees within the experimental villages are designed to boost food production, improve health, water and education access as part of an effort to help communities meet the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations.

Sauri resident Edward Oyier looks with pride at the stone structure surrounding a pipe out of which clean water flows.

He recalls how, more than a year ago, there were only five water points to serve 5,200 people in the area, and that people often drank dirty water and became sick.

About six months ago, the United Nations' Millennium Project supplied Sauri residents with cement, sand, and technical assistance. The community picked sites for building and hired workers, paying them with food.

Now, says Oyier, there are 15 water points in Sauri where people can get clean drinking water. He describes to VOA the difference that these water points have made.

"We are sure of that water, and we can draw it very conveniently because it is near to the people," said Oyier. "The distance that they come maybe [is] 10, five minutes, somebody has drawn the water and goes home. So time consumed is almost zero. But without this, people walk distances, many kilometers, going to fetch water. That is tiresome."

Down the road from the water point, Mama Tekla is spreading out peas on mats to dry in the sun. On her two-acre farm, the 72-year-old grows maize, peas, beans and other crops as well as raises chickens and cows.

She has been farming here since 1953. Her farm's performance was boosted over the past year by initiatives from the project.

The grandmother says that, ever since she made use of farming techniques from the Millennium Project, she and her family are now able to sell food and use funds to expand the farm.

Before the Millennium Project came in, says Mama Tekla, their harvests were not so good. She says that, from one acre of land, they could get two or three bags of maize. Now, she says, they are almost 20 bags per acre.

Sauri and the other Millennium Villages are the brainchild of American economist Jeffrey Sachs, who heads the United Nations' Millennium Project.

Sachs argues that countries aiming to meet the United Nations' eight millennium development goals need to start at the village level. In Sauri and other Millennium Villages, local committees set up and run projects in the areas of health, agriculture, water and sanitation, education, roads and communications, business, environment, and energy.

The eight Millennium Development Goals seek to reduce poverty, illiteracy, disease and food insecurity by 2015.

The projects are meant to be integrated local communities. For instance, Mama Tekla and other farmers donate 10 percent of their harvests to three primary schools in Sauri, which provide hot lunches to the students. The food, in turn, has boosted educational performance to the point where Bar Sauri Primary School's exam results rose from 108th to second in the district.

Patrick Mutuo is Sauri's project coordinator for the project. He describes to VOA some of Sauri's major achievements in the past year.

"The community themselves have become organized and now they are [more] focused than they were before. They are able now to sit down, analyze a problem, write a proposal. This community now has [more] sufficient food than they have ever had," he said. "School enrollment has increased. We are seeing a reduction in malaria because we have had the bed nets and we have now prompt treatment - the medicine is available. Malaria has reduced by almost a half. People have already started businesses."

The Millennium Villages is a joint activity of the United Nations' Millennium Project, the United Nations' Development Program, and the Earth Institute at Columbia University. The World Agroforestry Center is also involved.

Governments, business, and philanthropists worldwide provide funding for the initiative. Each village on average receives about $300,000 per year for five years.

In the case of Sauri, that works out to about $110 per person per year. About half of that is paid for by donors, while the rest is contributed by the Kenyan government, mainly in the form of salaries for extension workers, corporate giving, and from community members themselves.

Millennium Project communications officer Mattias Johansson says the program is part of a larger global effort to combat poverty.

"This is not a stand-alone project like a test tube or a hothouse in the middle of nowhere. This is very much connected to a national and a global discussion on development," stressed Johansson. "On a national level we have an on-going cooperation with the government in order to revise the national poverty and development strategies, to be more in alignment with the Millennium Development Goals. This is actually a part of that plan to eradicate poverty in the world. This is holistic approach to attack poverty from all angles at once."

Eleven other villages have been, or are in the process of being, set up in Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda.