Selas Samson Biru faces uncertainty with the seasons

By Coco McCabe
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Teff is the base of the batter Selas Samson Biru is pouring. Cooked on a hot surface, it becomes injera, a pancake-like bread. Photo: Coco McCabe

Set on a post in the yard of Selas Samson Biru’s compound is a clear plastic rectangle scored with tiny lines and numbers. It’s a rain gauge, one of 23 now scattered across the Adi Ha area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia where 200 farmers, many of them very poor, have embarked on an experiment to improve their chances of faring well at harvest time—regardless of what the weather does.

In a pilot program coordinated by Oxfam America along with a host of local partners, these farmers have bought weather insurance designed for their  teff, a staple grain here and across Ethiopia. If a certain amount of rain fails to fall at a certain time—and their teff does poorly—the insurance will cover some of their losses. Partners in the initiative include the Relief Society of Tigray, or REST; 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 rain gauges, like the one in Biru’s yard, measure the precipitation in different spots across Adi Ha where rainfall  is becoming increasingly unpredictable, making it ever harder for farmers to eke a living from this rocky part of the world.

“Our season is changing. We don’t know when there will be a bad year and when there will be a good year,” says Biru. “I believe, after taking the training, this insurance will be helpful during the bad season. This will pay me.”

Biru, who has bought 192 birr—or about $15—worth of insurance has become an expert at managing the vicissitudes of life in Adi Ha and together with her husband and six children, they have built a measure of security for themselves.

Married young, she built her confidence

Now 48, Biru was married at 15. But unlike some of her peers at the time, she had managed to attend school through the fourth grade, and when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, took control of the area, Biru stood out. Perhaps it was because of all the questions she asked, she says.

She joined the organization in about 1979 and soon assumed a leadership role among other women—a twist of fate that allowed her to develop the confidence that continues to feed her successes today. Biru is not afraid to try new things—including insurance, a concept few in her community knew much about before this pilot was launched. Biru became a member of the local team that helped design the project.

But before that, she had other experiences that allowed her to see the advantages of managing household money in different ways. Through a local microfinance institution, Biru has taken out a series of loans that have helped her to build a herd of livestock that now includes goats, oxen, and donkeys. She has used the proceeds from the sale of some of those goats to support two of her children as they make their way through university.
Income from the goats, which at one point numbered about 70, also helped the family finance the construction of a new house with a metal roof a few years ago. It consists of a long, rectangular room with perimeter seats built into the walls, two beds at the far end, and a high ceiling that helps the interior stay cool on hot days.

And though the hungry season is inching closer—the time before the harvests when the food supply of many families runs low—Biru still has a supply a grain. In a shed separate from her house, tall vessels stand against the back wall. As she uncorks the bottom of one of them, the grain makes a satisfying rush as it streams out Baskets on the floor brim with corn, finger millet, and teff.

Biru’s family has another source of bounty as well: the Tsalet River, which feeds an irrigation system constructed about 10 years ago by the Relief Society of Tigray with funding from Oxfam. More than 400 households now benefit from it. Water funneled through a series of channels connected to a dam across the river irrigates a quarter hectare of land from which Biru harvests green peppers, bananas, melons, guava, and coffee beans. That regular supply of water may free her from some of the worry about rain.

Counting every millimeter

But the irrigation system doesn’t water her teff. Across Adi Ha, farmers depend on the rainy season for that job. The main one, the kiremt, stretches from June into September. A shorter rainy season, the belg, runs from February to May. This year, the kiremt started late: the rain didn’t really begin to fall in substantial amounts until mid July, making it hard for farmers who plant sorghum and corn.

“For maize, the rain is not good. There was no rain early,” says Biru.
With her rain gauge, Biru keeps careful count of exactly how much rain falls, recording the precipitation on a small chart. Pulling it out to show some visitors one day in early August, she notes the range from half a millimeter the day before—barely a sprinkle—to 40 millimeters in a downpour on July 3.

Her crops aren’t the only thing Biru worries about when it comes to water. Her family also needs a steady supply for drinking and cooking. And often, the job of fetching it falls to her. Potable water is about an hour’s walk away, and someone in the household makes that trip once a day, sometimes with a donkey to haul the heavy load home. But a less reliable source that the family uses just for cooking, is a good deal closer—a 15-minute hike from Biru’s home.

Grabbing a jug, Biru heads down the path from her house, slowing her pace so the city slickers who are visiting can keep up. She’s going to show them what’s required to keep a family hydrated in Adi Ha, where there’s no municipal system pumping water through every household tap.

The walk includes a scramble down a steep ledge—and the knowledge of a return hike up, lugging the jug heavy with water. On the way, Biru stops at a mound of stones, bending to kiss one reverentially: below them, in an oasis of trees and thick bushes—one of the few forest-like spots still standing in the area—sits a local church. Tradition demands that the woods around the church be left alone. They’re sacred. And that may account for the small spring that still gurgles at their base.

It’s here that Biru stops to fill her jug, scooping cupfuls of water from the shallows while trying to leave the silt behind. Ten minutes later, she stands and heads home under a gray sky full of the promise of rain.

Will it be ample enough to guarantee a harvest?

“For teff, currently it’s good,” says Biru. But if it doesn’t last, she now has insurance to fall back on.

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