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How a Kenyan village tripled its corn harvest

The Millennium Villages Project is pricey. But it may hold answers to tackling the global food crisis.

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In Sauri, however, a cereal bank that offers its 3,800 members a place to sell and store surplus grain has a warehouse stacked high with bags of corn, emblematic of the region's high levels of production and opportunity for profit from current high prices for farmers like Ranyondo. "As the whole of Kenya is pressing towards hunger, this place is different," says Willis Ombai, a program coordinator with the Sauri MVP.

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The Millennium Villages are still small examples and face significant challenges in scaling up to district or provincial levels. But throughout the network of 11 villages that make up the Sauri community, corn production has on average more than tripled. The core of the strategy is a short-term provision of improved seeds suited to the local environment and fertilizers like Di-Ammonium Phosphate (DAP) and urea accompanied by advice on how to use them.

After two years, the subsidy ends. Farmers can get a loan from the cereal bank if they do not have the cash to buy the fertilizer and better seeds. In Ranyondo's case, he made enough profit on the sale of his corn to pay for seeds and other inputs.

But many obstacles remain in applying the model on a larger scale. The Sauri project, for example, has not yet found enough support in Kenya to scale up to the district level. Meanwhile, the price of petrochemical fertilizers, closely tied to the price of oil, is expected to climb by 70 percent.

Sam Rich, a consultant who criticized the Sauri project in the Wilson Quarterly magazine last year, noted that farmers in Kenya don't buy fertilizer because it costs three times as much as it does in Europe. They could boost productivity by simply easing taxes and import duties on fertilizer, he added.

But the food crisis has put a fresh spotlight on the MVP strategy, and proponents point to Malawi as an example of it working on a larger scale. Malawi has doubled its annual corn production since 2004, allowing for self-sufficiency and some surplus for sale to other nations.

A number of other African countries are now waiting for the funding to implement a similar national program, including Tanzania and Rwanda.

"We need to move very quickly and get a financing mechanism so that these countries can access funds to pay for seeds and fertilizers and train extension workers," says Denning.