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August 25, 2008

UN Millennium Villages making a difference in Malawi

by Lameck Masina

In Malawi, two villages with about 40,000 people have begun reaping the fruits of the United Nations initiative known as the Millennium Villages project. The goal is to reverse the poverty, hunger and disease affecting millions of rural people in sub-Saharan Africa.

There are two Millennium Villages in Malawi – one in the southern district of Zomba, the other in the central district of Mchinji.

UN specialists have been helping the villagers improve education, health care and small businesses. For example, 30 thousand bed nets have been distributed to households to combat malaria, and nearly 40 boreholes have been drilled to provide access to clean water. School children in the two Millennium Villages receive corn porridge in an effort that teachers say has almost doubled attendance in primary schools.

Much of the emphasis has been on improving food production. UN specialists in the villages have been emphasizing improved seeds and fertilizers in order to maximize crop production. Farmers are encouraged to create their own fertilizers from manure, because the cost of commercial fertilizers has more than doubled since last year.

Farmers are also encouraged to grow a diverse array of cash crops, including groundnuts, cabbages and tomatoes.

Vailet Mawerenga, a farmer in the Millennium Village in Zomba, says "Before I joined the project, the main problem I was facing was an acute maize shortage, but now food is not a problem, [especially] to those who are working hard."

Mawerenga says in the past she used traditional seed varieties, which produced about four 50kg bags of maize per acre. Today, new hybrid seeds have given her a 10-fold increase.
She says this year is her best yet. Her first priority, she says, is to replace the thatched roof of her house with a metal one. If crop surpluses continue, she wants to open a tailoring shop.

Farmers in Zomba say the rising cost of fuel is the main factor cutting into their profits from increased production. As a result, some farmers have to cycle 25km to sell produce at the nearest town. Others have joined forces to hire pick-up trucks to take their crops to the main market.

Phelire Nkhoma, the agriculture coordinator for both of Malawi's Millennium Villages, says "What we have discovered is that the project has really transformed the lives of these people. We have seen our farmers…with food [now] throughout the season and [with] good houses with iron-sheeted roofs. The cases of malnutrition care are no longer there."

The Millennium Villages were inspired by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. They were commissioned by the UN secretary general as a way to help achieve the organization's Millenium Development Goals, which focus largely on cutting poverty in half in Africa by 2015.

Financial support for the Malawi villages is scheduled to end in five years. But Nkhoma says the success of the villages may change that, "We are expecting that in 2010 the Millennium Villages project will end. However there are some rumors that probably it can extended to another five years."

Nkhoma says future activities will include the construction of dispensaries, schools and telecommunication facilities. In addition to Malawi, there are Millennium Villages in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.


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