In the past five years, life in Sauri — the bushy little patch of western Kenya — has improved dramatically.
Agricultural yields have doubled; child mortality has dropped by 30 per cent; school attendance has shot up and so have test scores, putting one local school second in the area, when it used to be ranked 17th; and cell phone ownership (a telltale sign of prosperity in rural Africa) has increased fourfold. There is a palpable can-do spirit that infuses the muddy lanes and family compounds walled off by the fruity-smelling lantana bushes. People who have grown bananas for generations are learning to breed catfish, and women who used to be terrified of bees are now lulling them to sleep with smoke and harvesting the honey.
“I used to think, African killer bees, no way,” said Judith Onyango, one of the new honey makers. But now, she added, with visible pride, “I'm an apiarist.”
Sauri was the first of what are now more than 80 Millennium Villages across Africa, a showcase project that was the dream child of Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Harvard-trained, Columbia University economist who runs with an A-list crowd: Bono, both Bills (Clinton and Gates), George Soros, Kofi Annan, Ban Ki-moon and others. His intent was to show that tightly focused, technology-based and relatively straightforward programs on a number of fronts simultaneously — health care, education, job training — could rapidly lift people out of poverty. In Sauri, at least, it seems to be working. Some of the goals were literally low-hanging fruit, like teaching banana farmers to rotate their crops. Other programmes were more sophisticated, like the battle against malaria, which employs mobile technology against a disease that kills more than one million children each year.
The other day, a community health team in Sauri stooped through the doorway of a home of several sick children, said hello to Grandma and got to work. Within minutes, a health worker had taken a child's blood sample, sent a text message with the blood results by cell phone to a computer server overseen by a man named Dixon in a town about an hour away and gotten back these instructions: “Child 81665 OKOTH Patrick m/16m has MALARIA. Please provide 1 tab of Coartem (Act) twice a day for three days.”
These small miracles are happening every day in Sauri, population 65,000. But the question for Sachs and his team remains: Is this progress, in development-speak, scalable? — ©2010 New York Times News Service