A bit of simple math will tell you a lot about Medhin Reda’s life. Add the three hours it takes her to walk to and from one of her fields, to the six hours she spends each week hunting for wood for her cooking fire, plus the half hour, round-trip, that’s required for fetching water for her family and you’ll understand why she sometimes rises at 3 a.m. to get all her work done—especially during those times when she needs to trade her labor for services she doesn’t have the money to pay for.
Reda, 45, is a farmer in Adi Ha, a collection of small villages in Tigray, a rocky region of northern Ethiopia. Here, rainfall is becoming increasingly unpredictable, and for the farmers who depend on its regularity to ensure their fields will produce food for their families, the change in weather patterns is deeply troubling. Without rain, the crops of hundreds of farmers in Adi Ha won’t grow.
Already this year the rains were six weeks late, coming in mid July instead of early June. That meant the corn got a late start and some farmers didn’t bother with sorghum at all. Still, hopes were high for teff, the tiny grain that is a staple for people here—and across Ethiopia where 6 million farmers grow the nutrient-rich cereal. Reda is one of them.
But this year, she and 199 other small farmers in Adi Ha weren’t taking any chances. When Oxfam and its partners suggested a way to buffer the hardships Mother Nature might bring, the farmers embraced it—even if few had ever heard of such a thing. The proposal? Weather insurance designed for their teff. If the rain failed to fall in certain amounts at certain times, farmers who bought the insurance would receive a payout to cover some of their losses. The insurance is being offered by the Nyala Insurance Company and Swiss Re. Other organizations partnering on the project include the Relief Society of Tigray, or REST; the Dedebit Credit and Savings Institution, or DESCI; and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.
“Because of repeated drought, which really affected me, I joined the insurance with the understanding it might solve my problems,” said Reda.
For a long time, most people in the insurance business thought that poor farmers, like many of those in Adi Ha, were uninsurable. Where would they get the cash to buy the insurance? This pilot program has answered that with a simple, and ingenious, solution. Reda is paying for her premium—like she does for other important things in her life—with her labor.
Reda, along with 65 percent of all those who have signed up for the insurance, is a participant in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, an initiative that provides cash and food for some of the country’s poorest people in exchange for their work on community improvements. She’ll work 24 extra days this year on projects that benefit Adi Ha—such as planting trees and grasses to promote soil and water conservation—to cover the cost of her premium.
“It’s good for me to have the insurance as long as I can work and pay with labor,” says Reda. “That is the only asset I have.”
A single mother and head of an all-girl household at the moment—she lives with three of her daughters; a fourth daughter lives in a nearby town; and a son is away studying—Reda works hard to keep together all the pieces of a difficult life. With one of her daughters, Abbadit Girmay, who is now 19, Reda hauled to their hillside site every stone of the hut they now live in. And to build it, she hired a mason to mortar the rocks together—paying him with a summer’s worth of weeding in his fields.
To get her own fields plowed—she has two, totaling a half hectare of land--Reda hires herself out each planting season, working three full days for the man who owns the oxen, in exchange for one day of his plowing.
Work is Reda’s currency.
"That’s why I’m thin," she says, with a wry smile.
In the corn patch just below her house, Reda stands bent at the waist , her hands flying over the weeds as she yanks and clumps them swiftly into small piles. Close behind, and weeding nearly as fast, Tekleweini Girmay, 7, follows her mother through the stalks. Reda—and necessity—have taught her well.
But a farmer’s life is not what Reda envisions for her youngest child—or any of her daughters. She wants them to have what she never had: an education.
“The season is not good enough for agriculture. Our soil has become poor and they need fertilizer,” she says. “I don’t want my children to be farmers. Those who have started their education I want them to continue and have jobs. And those who haven’t started, I want them to start.” Tekleweini will be among those newly enrolled when the next session of school begins.
And Reda will be, too.
She has signed up for an adult literacy program that REST is offering.
And though Reda can’t read, her mind is filled with news of the world beyond Adi Ha that she absorbs from a small radio she keeps tucked on a shelf in her hut. Voice of America in Tigrinya and Dmitsi Woyane or the voice of the ruling party are among her favorite stations. Sometimes, Reda will stay up until 11 p.m. listening—when there are working batteries, that is. They are expensive, about 10 birr each, or about most of what she would earn for a day’s labor.
There’s no electricity in this stone-walled compound, and few creature comforts. At night, light in Reda’s cramped hut comes from a hanging bulb hooked to a flashlight battery. She also has two small oil lamps. Household wares hang from the ceiling beamed with logs and storage vessels stand in the shadows in the corners. Two mud seats built into the walls near the door serve as beds.
In early August, green washes the hills that stretch below Reda’s hut, a sign that the rain—now that it has finally come—is ample enough for the moment. Her corn is doing well, she says with satisfaction.
And her teff?
The seeds have been in the ground for just a week and years of experience have left her circumspect.
“It’s too early to say if it’s good or bad,” says Reda.