x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A thriving community in a sea of poverty

Sauri in Kenya provides an abundance of food as one of 80 Millennium Villages across Africa, part of a UN and US investment project.

Farmer Joseph Otengo, one of the villagers of Sauri who has benefited from The Millennium Village project.
Farmer Joseph Otengo, one of the villagers of Sauri who has benefited from The Millennium Village project.

SAURI, KENYA // Driving through the endless emerald-coloured hills of rural western Kenya, it is obvious where the village of Sauri begins. The bumpy, rutted, red-earth roads suddenly become smooth and graded. The maize stalks are a metre taller than those in the surrounding villages. The mud brick houses have glass in the windows. Power lines criss-cross the countryside. The livestock is plump and healthy. The children look well-fed; happy. Poor rains and rising food prices have left millions of Kenyans hungry and reliant on food handouts. The United Nations is currently feeding more than 15 million people across east Africa. But not the people of Sauri. Year after year of bumper harvests have left this village with a food surplus. In fact, there is so much food that the villagers donate it to schools and sell it to other villages.

It is no mystery why Sauri, with its abundance of food, is a thriving community in a sea of poverty. Almost every aspect of the village is heavily subsidised, from its agriculture to its health care to its education, as part of a bold experiment to lift Africa out of poverty through international investment. Sauri is one of 80 Millennium Villages scattered across 10 African countries. The Millennium Village project, a partnership between the UN and the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, aims to meet the UN's development goals including ending hunger, improving health care and education and eradicating disease. According to the project, these goals can be achieved for the bargain price of US$110 (Dh403) per villager per year - $50 from the project itself, $30 from the host government, $20 from other donors and $10 from the villagers. In the agricultural sector, villagers are given quality seeds and fertiliser, taught improved farming methods, encouraged to grow diverse crops and organised to get a higher price for their harvest.

Whereas most relief projects simply give out food, which enables an addiction to handouts, the Millennium project teaches people to pull themselves out of poverty, according to Jeffrey Sachs, the economist, author and one of the founders of the project. "Emergency food aid doesn't lead to solutions," Mr Sachs said in a telephone interview from New York, where he directs the Earth Institute and is a special adviser to the UN secretary general. "We need to get the news out to farmers that better planting will allow them to get out of the poverty trap." Maize, the preferred crop of most Kenyan farmers, is heavily reliant on rain. In drought years, like this one, crops fail and there is widespread hunger.

Farmers in Sauri, like Joseph Otengo, grow a small amount of maize, but also high-value crops such as kale, sweet potatoes, cabbage and tomatoes. When his maize does poorly, Mr Otengo sells his vegetables and buys imported grains. He has made enough profit to build a house for his wife and four children, buy a stall in the local market and a cow, which he calls "diversification" after the farming technique the Millennium project taught him. "The project came and gave me many technologies that I have used to improve my life," said Mr Otengo, 34, standing in his field of leafy green kale. "Now I don't have difficulty feeding my family." At the village cereal bank, bags of maize and beans are stacked against the wall. When villagers have a bumper harvest, they pool their surplus grain at the cereal bank and sell it in bulk when the price is high, ensuring maximum profit for each farmer. "Before it was just small-scale farming for ourselves," said Mary Odera, treasurer of the cereal bank. "Now farming is a business. At least we have food security for a long time." Villagers living outside the project area survive on less than $1 per day and are sometimes resentful of the amount of aid and investment pumped into their neighbour. But they still benefit from the Millennium project. People come from far away to take advantage of Sauri's free health care at the clinic. Farmers in surrounding villages learn farming techniques at workshops in Sauri. Children from all over the region attend Sauri's primary school for the free lunch programme and computer lab. "You can't develop one area and not have a trickledown effect," said Patrick Okeyo, a logistician for the Millennium project. "We don't shut our doors to anyone." The Millennium project has been developing Sauri for five years and has another five years before it is scheduled to pull out. Critics question the project's sustainability. In five years, when the training wheels come off, there is no guarantee that the village will not backslide into poverty. But the project will leave the villagers with the tools to develop themselves, Mr Sachs said, and the improved infrastructure will still be in place long after the project is gone. "When the project ends, the community will have assets and they are going to have to use them well. You have to do this long enough to build up their wealth, but you can't do it forever because that would be debilitating." mbrown@thenational.ae