Gebru Kahsay doesn’t like to talk about 1984--the year that drought and pestilence lead to a famine that left nearly one million Ethiopians dead. Nobody likes to talk about it for fear that dwelling on such a terrible time might somehow invite more trouble.
But for Kahsay, a 52-year-old farmer in the Adi Ha area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, a good deal has changed in the quarter century since so many of his neighbors lost all their crops including teff, a staple grain.
More than a third of the families in Adi Ha grow the tiny seed. It’s rich in nutrients and serves as the base for a pancake-like bread—injera—that many people eat. The hay left after threshing is also nourishing for animals. And for families that have some to spare, the grain commands a good price in the market.
Still, for those who depend on rain to help their teff thrive—it’s the second most widely cultivated rain-fed crop in Adi Ha—growing this cereal can be an iffy proposition, especially as global warming may be forcing a change in weather patterns. The rain came late this year to Adi Ha, preventing some farmers, like Kahsay, from planting early crops of sorghum—and heightening the need for a hearty harvest of teff.
But this year, Kahsay has a back-up plan if the rain doesn’t cooperate: weather insurance. He’s one of 200 farmers in Adi Ha who decided to participate in a pilot program organized by Oxfam America and carried out with the help of numerous local organizations, including the Relief Society of Tigray, or REST. Other partners include the Nyala Insurance Company; Swiss Re: the Dedebit Credit and Savings Institution, or DECSI; and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.
The farmers—some paying with cash, others with labor—have bought varying amounts of insurance designed specifically for their teff. If the rain fails to fall in certain amounts at certain times, farmers will receive a payout to cover some of their losses.
“According to my belief, this insurance is important to protect us from migrating in a drought in search of food,” says Kahsay, who has bought 192 birr—or about $15—worth of insurance. “It saves the lives of the family during drought.”
Irrigation is also insurance
Kahsay has a large family to be concerned about. He’s the father of nine children, the youngest of whom is just 2. But the weather insurance he is trying out isn’t his only defense against bad times: irrigation also serves as a cushion.
Kahsay is among the more fortunate farmers in Adi Ha who have access to an irrigation system constructed by REST with funding from Oxfam a little more than 10 years ago. With concrete canals and a dam across the Tsalet River, the system has made major improvements to the traditional watering network that would clog with debris during heavy rains. In the month that it would take farmers to clean out the mess, their crops would often die.
For Kahsay, the modern system has been a boon. Though he irrigates just one quarter of a hectare of land, it provides him with an array of produce—oranges, coffee, papayas, tomatoes, onions—that he can sell. In fact, 95 percent of what he grows on his irrigated plot goes to market and the income buffers his family from the hard times that farmers, who depend only on rain-fed harvests, have no choice but to grapple with as best they can.
But Kahsay also tills two hectares of land that rely solely on rain. He sews them with corn, finger millet, sorghum, and teff—and most of the harvests from these fields get consumed by his family.
Wrapping a shawl about his shoulders and tucking an umbrella under his arm—it’s early August and it’s been raining, off and on, for several weeks—Kahsay strides down the slope from where his compound sits atop a rock ledge. Though he’s been battling malaria, he moves fast toward his fields, with a string of visitors straggling behind.
Soon, he reaches an expanse of sandy soil, dusty on the surface. Shoving up through the plowed ridges are shafts of green, so delicate they could almost be a trick of the eye in the brilliance of the afternoon sun. This is Kahsay’s teff field, well-guarded by his seven-year-old grandson, Aregawi Mulugeta, standing with a stick under the shade of a tree. Kahsay greets him heartily, and together they trek to the middle of the field to examine the shoots.
The teff is doing well, he reports.
But Kahsay says he would have liked to have had weather insurance that covers too much rainfall, not too little. In this region of sandy soils, heavy rains that come too fast can be as much of a hazard for teff as drought, and 1997 is still vivid in his mind because of that. That was the year flooding destroyed 70 percent of the teff he had planted.
Despite the water-logging, Kahsay has also seen a troubling trend toward increased dryness over the decades. Like all farmers, he watches the weather closely and analyzes the conditions.
Drought used to strike every eight years or so, he says. But now the cycle seems to be speeding up. And with drought comes the hardship of food shortages—for both people and the animals that help farmers plow their fields and provide them with milk.
With those trends becoming ever clearer, the purchase of weather insurance may turn out to be one of the best adaptations the people of Adi Ha can make.
“We are experimenting,” says Kahsay. “We started with teff. If we find the insurance is good, we’ll continue. If we fail, we will take a lesson from it.”