Outside the round, thatch-roofed house Gidey Mehari shares with his mother in northern Ethiopia, rain pelted the yard in mid-August, turning it sticky with mud. Thunder shook the walls, and Mehari, sitting near a fire inside, pulled his white shawl tighter over his shoulders.
If the rain continued at least there would be pasture for his two cows, guaranteeing their health and ensuring his family would have milk to drink. But the shorter rains, which should have fallen earlier in the season, had failed to come to Keih Tekli. And without them, Mehari was unable to sow his sorghum, one of two main crops he depends on. Instead, he would rely on teff, a tiny grain planted later in the year that is a staple of the Ethiopian diet.
For small-scale producers like Mehari, drought is the enemy—unpredictable and deadly. It’s the hardest part about farming, he says. And it’s one of the reasons that Mehari has joined more than 13,000 others in the Tigray region to buy weather insurance for their crops.
The insurance is part of a rapidly expanding program designed to help some of Ethiopia’s poorest farmers reduce the risk they face from disaster. When rainfall drops below a predetermined threshold, farmers who have bought the insurance receive a payout. Those too poor to pay with cash can trade their labor on community projects in exchange for the insurance. Launched by Oxfam in 2008 with the help of a host of partners including the Relief Society of Tigray, the program, now called the Rural Resilience Initiative, or R4, is set to expand into Senegal and two other countries in partnership with the World Food Programme.
Mehari has participated in the initiative for two years, swapping work—he has been planting tree seedlings in his community—for insurance. The first year he traded 16 days of labor for a premium worth 192 birr, or just over $11. That would have provided him with a payout of 600 birr, or nearly $35. Last year, Mehari invested 25 days of labor for coverage that would have given him a payout worth 800 birr, or more than $46.
That’s not enough to cover all his costs if he loses a harvest, but it’s enough of a buffer, perhaps, to prevent him from sinking deeper into poverty.
"It helps," he says, noting that if drought wiped out his harvest, the insurance would allow him to recover two-thirds of the 1,200 birr he invested in planting.
Divorced and the father of one daughter, Mehari says he had a basic understanding of how insurance works so when the opportunity arose to purchase some, he jumped at it. In his 38 years, he and his family had already experienced far more than their fair share of loss: Of the eight children to whom Mehari's mother gave birth, only two were still alive.
"I knew what insurance was. But the community members were confused and skeptical. How can it work?" he recalls them asking. "I accepted it (the insurance) without hesitation because if the crop fails, for me--it's like a parent's support in a bad situation."
As rain from the roof pooled into fat drops over the door, Mehari contemplated what the future would bring. He had already sowed more than an acre of land with teff seed and planned to plant the rest very soon.
"If the rain continues--like now--it won't be serious," he says of the hardship farmers face because of the lost sorghum season. "But if there is an early exit (of the rain), that will be disastrous."
For Mehari, insurance would soften the blow. But for countless other farmers tilling the rocky soil of Tigray, uncertainty sits heavily on their minds, its weight growing as increasingly erratic weather changes the age-old rules of agriculture.