Over the past year, Undercurrent has been working with Millennium Promise (their brand new website was created by the stellar team at FreeAssociation), to help the non-profit organization figure out how they can best use the internet to share the incredible stories of their work, and inspire supporters around the world to play a meaningful role. My trip to Kenya was organized by Millennium Promise to show me and other supporters the results of the organization’s efforts.
The Millennium Villages Project is an ambitious initiative designed to show the world and its leaders how people can work together to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. It was envisioned by Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist and head of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and has been led by John McArthur, CEO of Millennium Promise. The project has 14 sites across sub-Saharan Africa, each with unique climate and environmental challenges. The project began in 2005, and since then has made tremendous progress towards eradicating extreme poverty in the areas where they work and accomplishing the Millennium Development Goalsset forth by Kofi Anaan and the UN back in 2000. The Millennium Villages Project is demonstrating an integrated model for tackling the challenges of extreme poverty; showing that it’s not enough to only focus on water or health resources or infrastructure or food or education. In order to catalyze lasting and sustainable change, we need to address them all together.Sauri, which is about 30 miles Northeast of Kisumu was one of the first Millennium Villages, and is a shining example of how successful this integrated model can be. In the short time since its inception, the project has dramatically increased maize yields (the primary agricultural crop in this area), lowered malnutrition among childred under the age of 2 from 9% to 2%, and established high levels of elementary school attendance.
Vincent, Clinical Health Officer
Our first stop was at a health clinic. It was run by a young man named Vincent who was the Chief Health Officer here. Vincent is not a full-fledged Doctor, but he effectively acts as one addressing the vast majority of major health issues in his local area. At this clinic, Vincent and his staff of nurses and community health workers treat about 8,000 people (out of approximately 65,000 total in Sauri). They have a pharmacy on site, health counseling for both children and parents, testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and most vitally the ability to provide safe aided child-birth. Though the facility was modest, it was also clean and very well taken care of. Vincent beamed as he told us about the clinic and their work, justifiably proud of their role in the community.One of the most fascinating things he told us was about their efforts to prevent the spread of HIV from mother to baby. If they know that a pregnant mother is HIV positive, they now have the ability through a careful drug treatment program to ensure that the baby is HIV-free within several months after the birth. But achieving this success depends on being able to overcome deep rooted social stigmas about being HIV positive, being tested for it, and using formula instead of breast feeding the new baby to discourage the transmission during the baby’s infancy.
Our next stop was to visit an 18 year old named Gregory who had built and now runs his own drip-irrigation tomato greenhouse. With matching funds and materials provided by the Project, Gregory was able to build his own green house, set up a water collection and irrigation system, buy a full harvest of disease resistant tomato plant seeds, and with great effort and care, grow a full crop of tomato plants. Gregory can then sell the plants either at local market or take a public bus into Kisumu to sell them there. Tomatoes are a fairly lucrative crop, and if he keeps the plants healthy he could have as much as a 300% return on his original investment by the end of his first year.
After Gregory and his tomatoes, we visited a honey farm, where African Killer Bees (yes, they were actual Killer Bees) form hives and produce delicious organic honey. The honey farmers have formed a coop, and share the facilities and packaging of the refined product. The coop has given them stronger bargaining power and the opportunity to get their brand of honey certified with a national seal of approval.
School building with the alphabet painted on the side
Next stop was to visit one of the elementary schools in Sauri, which is run by a passionate and ambitious headmaster named Millicent. This inspiring school has its own lessons to teach struggling schools in the U.S. Millicent has created a club at the school for some of the older children, aged 10-15, called the 4K club. The 4K club runs a working farm at the school. They grow their own bananas, kale, and other vegetables which are used for the daily meals at the school. In addition they run a tree nursery that sells to people in the community. If a parent of one of the younger students buys a young eucalyptus sapling now, 10 years later it will be worth enough that it could be sold to pay for their child’s secondary education.
The school-run farm
A kitten in the school’s kitchen
The school has a computer room where the students take classes, and adults from the community can also pay to learn computer skills of their own. One recent student had flourished here and was now top of his class in secondary school, sure to go on to do bigger and better things with computers and digital technology.
Secondary education (the U.S. equivalent of High School) is prohibitively expensive here. Families have to pay approximately $500 per student per year. Only the children of the wealthiest families expect to be able to attend. For the rest, they must turn to a range of charitable alternatives, some from the government, some from philanthropic individuals and foundations, some from programs like the Millennium Villages Project. Even though scholarships do exist, they are hard to come by, and even the most promising minds are not guaranteed an opportunity to advance and pursue a higher education.
A small cafe/shop by the side of the road
As we drove between stops, I was continually surprised by how many people we saw everywhere. The landscape implied that we were in rural farmland. In the U.S. driving across western Pennsylvania, you’d hardly see anyone who wasn’t in a car. In Sauri there were people everywhere we went. The large and dense population is one of the biggest challenges here, as there simply aren’t enough resources to go around. In Vincent’s office at the clinic we saw a demographic breakdown of the local population on his wall. Over 40% of the population are under the age of 15. In the U.S., only 20% of the population are under the age of 15.Our last stop of the day was to visit a formerly-retired engineer named Luke who now runs a fish hatchery. On Luke’s farm, he and two co-workers have built an elaborate system of pools and water piping systems. Luke has a thriving business of raising baby catfish and tilapia, which he then sells to 200 different fish farmers in the area who raise them and sell them at market when they’ve grown.
Luke shows us a tilapia
Luke was clearly a savvy entrepreneur. He wore a dark suit with a colorful purple necktie. Earlier in the morning he had attended a school board meeting.
Luke shows us a Mobydick flower
Once Luke gets his newest pond operational, which will be lined with plastic to prevent losing any of the small hatchlings in the mud, Luke will have a highly efficient business that he expects to thrive for years to come, as the demand for fish remains high.We said our thanks and goodbyes and headed to the Kisumu airport to wait for our flight back to Nairobi.
The Millennium Villages Project model is clearly effective. Implemented successfully, it has the power to enable a community to develop the means to lift themselves out of extreme poverty and take the first step towards a better life for their families.
Digital communications technology, as we think of it in tech-savvy New York, does have a powerful potential role to play here. But, there is still a ways to go before the people in Sauri have reason to appreciate what being connected to millions of outsiders around the world through the internet might do for them. Rightfully so, they have more important things to think about on a daily basis.
I know that there is an immense interest and passion from millions of potential supporters elsewhere around the world. There are people who care deeply about the kind of work that is going on in the Millennium Villages Project. They’d like to help in every way possible: from learning, contributing their ideas, becoming advocates, and helping to raise funds. But, the voice of the people on the ground who are living this change and making this change for themselves and their communities remains muted at the global level. And their voice is the essential catalyst to unlock massive global participation. Digital communications technology has the power to amplify their voice such that it reaches an army of digitally empowered supporters and inspires them to take action.
Mankind has never in its history had a technology like the internet that has enabled groups of people – separated by time and place – to work together effectively to achieve common goals. And I passionately believe that we’d be failing humanity if we failed to use the opportunity created by the internet to solve the issues of global development and global health together as a digitally connected global society.