In 2004, Janet Tobias co-founded Ikana Media, a digital consulting and television company. Prior to this, she worked for Sawyer Media Systems, a San Francisco-based software and media company, which was an early developer of Internet video portal software. Between 2000 and 2002,Tobias was the executive producer of the Emmy award-winning "LIFE 360," a weekly PBS series that combined documentary with dramatic and comic monologues. Tobias started her network news career at "60 Minutes" as associate producer to Diane Sawyer.
As you drive from the airport into Rwanda's capital, Kigali, you immediately notice there is something different about this African country. First, there is almost no trash on the streets. Then you notice that almost everyone obeys the traffic laws; motorcycle taxi drivers and their passengers always wear helmets; and women walk alone safely after dark.
People are quick to tell you that everyone in the country right up to President Kagame spends the last Saturday of every month doing public service projects. And they are keen to boast about the number of women holding important positions. Rwanda is the first country in the world where women are in the majority in parliament.
Rwanda feels like a country on the move. It is hard to believe this is the place that most of the world still associates with genocide and ethnic strife.
In 1994, Rwanda was ripped apart by violence so apocalyptic that nearly 1 million people died in the span of approximately 100 days. Rwandans now appear bent on taking responsibility for their fate. Repeatedly, I heard people say that they were responsible for what went wrong. But now they will be responsible for what goes right. They will be an African success story.
Rwanda feels like a country on the move. It is hard to believe of a place that most of the world still associates with genocide and ethnic strife.
My original impetus for going to Rwanda was to look at the Millennium Villages Project, an ambitious poverty reduction plan for Africa launched in 2004 by The Earth Institute at Columbia University.
The brainchild of economist Jeffrey Sachs, the project aims to show that extreme poverty can be eliminated or at least drastically reduced within five years if you rigorously apply the latest science and technology to agriculture, health, education and infrastructure.
The first millennium model village was started in Kenya. Since then, the project has expanded to 80 villages across 10 African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.
The village project in Rwanda interested me in particular because tackling poverty in a country with such a devastating recent history seemed like the ultimate test.
We first traveled to Mayange, a village cluster of 25,000 people, in the spring of 2006, soon after the project had been launched. We returned in May 2008, when the village was about half way through the five-year plan to turn its fortunes around. As the video story reveals, we saw substantial progress in crop diversity and production, health care and education throughout the Mayange settlement.
The first Millennium model village was started in Kenya in 2004. Since then, the project has expanded to 80 villages across 10 African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda.
A major achievement has been reducing the incidence of malaria. This is a health care cornerstone for all 80 millennium villages in Africa. Since 2004, 340,000 insecticide-treated bed nets have been distributed to deter malaria-carrying mosquitoes. And in Mayange today, new cases of malaria are rare.
Since my first visit, the Rwandan government has made a commitment to expand beyond Mayange, choosing 30 sites across the country to develop new villages with the potential to improve the lives of 800,000 Rwandans.
In the 10 countries where it is in operation, the Millennium Villages Project has trained 800 community health workers and refurbished or constructed 49 hospitals, clinics or health posts.
Although the project is clearly improving lives in Mayange and other villages in the scheme, some have criticized Sachs' vision for tackling Africa's crippling poverty. Among them is former World Bank economist William Easterly.
Easterly believes that Sachs' micro approach of investing large amounts into small areas to rapidly reduce poverty was tried in Africa in the 1950 and 1960s, and it failed. Easterly prefers a macro approach where funds are used to tackle one issue at a time, such as eradicating a particular disease, and implemented on a broad scale.
A major achievement in Rwanda has been in reducing the incidence of malaria. This is a health care cornerstone for all 80 Millennium Villages in Africa.
A report published in the Wilson Quarterly in 2007, also questioned how effective the five-year plan could be. Citing the example of the first model village set up in Kenya, one U.N. official close to the project told the journal that Sachs and his team had made "all the classic development mistakes. If you give away tons of fertilizer, it's predictable that much of it will end up on the open market. If you put millions [of dollars] in a small place, you're going to have problems," said the official, who talked on the condition of anonymity.
From the beginning, Rwanda's millennium village took a different approach from the one in Kenya. Fertilizer, for example, wasn't given out free; rather, villagers purchased it through loans.
On a continent where billions of dollars of aid have had questionable results, the final test for Mayange and the other millennium villages will come when all the metrics are gathered at the end of five years across all 10 countries.
-- Janet Tobias
"Rwanda: The Millennium Village" is part of FRONTLINE/World's Social Entrepreneurs Series, made possible by the Skoll Foundation through a grant to the PBS Foundation.