Fighting African poverty, village by village
Standing in the midst of a freshly planted maize field, Bright Osei Kwaku recalls that some twelve months earlier he more than doubled his output with the help of improved seeds, fertilizer and advice on farming techniques. Altogether, his two to three acres yielded about 15 100-kilogramme bags of maize, compared with just six bags the year before, when he had no such support.
Many other young Ghanaians have either left agriculture or dream of doing so. But Mr. Kwaku, 25 years old, thinks he can stay on the land. “I will continue to farm,” he told Africa Renewal. “I got income and food. I got enough from the farm.”
With world food prices constantly fluctuating, it is a good time to push for higher production, argues Isaac Kankam-Boadu, the agriculture and environment facilitator of the Millennium Villages Project in Bonsaaso, a cluster of poor and remote settlements in Ghana’s Ashanti Region. “High food prices are an opportunity,” he says. “The farmers can earn more money.”
In 2007, Mr. Kankam-Boadu reports, Bonsaaso’s maize farmers managed to quadruple their yields from an average of about one tonne per hectare (two and a half acres) to four tonnes. Besides boosting their own incomes, the farmers contributed about a tenth of their crop to the area’s new school feeding programme, which helps many of the area’s children.
Such linkages are at the heart of the Millennium Villages Project. The first Millennium Village was launched in 2004 in Sauri, Kenya, as an integrated development initiative. Besides Ghana, the project soon expanded to also include villages in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda. The sites were selected on the basis of their poverty indicators and to represent Africa’s different ecological and climate zones. Altogether, more than 400,000 people now live in villages chosen for the project.
The idea grew from research and policy deliberations of the Millennium Task Force, directed by the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Jeffrey Sachs. The MDGs, adopted by world leaders in 2000, strive to drastically reduce poverty and deprivation around the world.
The Millennium Villages approach is based on two central ideas: The first is that simple and inexpensive changes in nutrition, health, water, sanitation, education, women’s status, agriculture, communications, roads and electricity can lift rural Africans out of severe poverty. The second is that a combination of community mobilization, government support and external aid can fund these efforts for only about $110 per person per year. Most of the Millennium Village projects are being implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
From school meals to cell phones
The Millennium initiative came to Bonsaaso in March 2006, initially in 10 localities. By the end of that year the project had expanded to 30 communities, covering some 400 square kilometres and affecting more than 30,000 people. The area was selected because many residents were very poor, malnutrition was common, there were few health services, many children did not go to school and numerous other indicators of human development lagged.
Rather than focusing on just one or two sectors, the project’s designers want to show that poverty can be attacked across a wide front. If successful here and in other countries, says Sam Asare Afram, the former Millennium Village manager in Bonsaaso, the project could provide a “model” for the continent.
In 2008, two years after the start of the project, communities in Bonsaaso were already enjoying real results. Mohammed Salifu, a cocoa farmer, produced nine 64-kilogramme bags in 2007, up from just four the year before, simply by following the advice of an agricultural extension officer sent to Bonsaaso by the ministry of food and agriculture. With new seedlings of a higher-yielding and faster-growing variety of cocoa, he hopes to do even better this year.
Bigger cocoa and food harvests will bring new challenges, however. The abysmal state of the roads within Bonsaaso and with other parts of Ghana makes it hard for farmers to get their crops to market. But Chinese road contractors hired by the government are busy at work, and the project has acquired two five-tonne trucks to help transport produce. Developing physical infrastructure is not one of the MDGs, notes Ernest Mensah, a project facilitator. “But if you want to eradicate poverty,” he adds, “you need infrastructure.”
Critics of donor-aided development projects in Africa point out that they often tend to make the beneficiaries dependent on outside assistance, and frequently collapse if that money eventually dries up. The Millennium Villages Project does rely on significant inflows. On average, about 60% of project financing comes from donors, 30% from national and local governments and the rest from the communities themselves.
In part, the project is designed to convince donors to provide more financing over the long term, by demonstrating concretely that aid can be used effectively to reduce poverty. By showing that external aid can indeed be effective in Africa, Mr. Sachs and his colleagues hope to convince the major industrialized countries to live up to their commitments.
To help guard against local expectations that such outside assistance will continue to keep the Millennium Villages functioning, project planners stress that certain forms of aid will be steadily reduced and that governments and villagers will need to take up a greater share of the cost. The new higher-yielding cocoa seedlings provided to farmers are currently subsidized, notes Mr. Kankam-Boadu. But as farmers they earn more from their cocoa sales.
In various ways, project organizers are encouraging national and local government bodies to expand their presence in Bonsaaso: by building roads, extending electricity connections and sending in more teachers, health care workers and agricultural extension advisers.
Building up community institutions and a spirit of self-help are also vital for long-term sustainability. Local residents regularly participate in the construction of new schools, teachers’ quarters, clinics and community centres by providing labour and contributing sand, stones, timber and other construction materials.
The project employs several “facilitators” to help strengthen school management committees, parents’ associations, water committees and other bodies, and to engage traditional chiefs, who play a major role in mobilizing people. Stephen Antwi, the project’s community development coordinator, told Africa Renewal that community structures will help Bonsaaso keep developing even when outside aid eventually falls. “We’ll likely have the capacity for many years.”