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Weather insurance offers Ethiopian farmers hope—despite drought

By Coco McCabe
Rain gauges scattered around Adi Ha help keep track of the precipitation.

In Adi Ha, an area in northern Ethiopia where drought can ruin their harvests and climate change is threatening their futures, 200 households are taking a chance on a new idea: weather insurance designed for a tiny seed called teff. It’s from a cereal grass native to Ethiopia that feeds their families, fattens their animals, and puts a little cash in their pockets.

More than 6 million farmers across the country grow teff, but it’s here, in rugged Adi Ha, where rocks litter the fields like confetti, that this new kind of insurance may take root and spread. An initiative coordinated by Oxfam America and supported by more than a dozen partners, its goal is to help some of the world’s poorest farmers bounce back when drought destroys their crops. And the payout isn’t only in cash. It’s in confidence—the kind that may help propel people out of poverty.

“Without insurance, poor farmers who experience drought might run through all their savings, fall into debt, or sell their livestock and other valuables—often to ruinous results,” says Mengesha Gebremichael, the micro-insurance officer at the Relief Society of Tigray and one of the project’s managers. “In contrast, insured farmers will be more resilient to those shocks. They’ll be in a better position to take out small loans that could help them make big improvements in their next harvest—loans for things like high-yield seeds. They’ll be more confident that they can pay the money back knowing they have insurance to support them if trouble strikes.”

June to October marks the main rainy season in Adi Ha, a critical time for local farmers who depend on the skies to water their teff fields. For poor families living close to the edge, where even a $20 or $30 loss can push them over, there is no room for mishap. Without rain, they face disaster. That’s where the weather insurance comes in. If a certain amount of rain fails to fall at a certain time, farmers who have purchased the insurance can receive a payout to help cover their losses.

The old ways may not be enough

In Ethiopia, families have always had traditional ways of coping with extraordinary expenses. If they lose their livestock in a disaster, such as drought, those who are better off will contribute an animal or two to help them rebuild their herds, for instance. Families may also share seeds for planting, or food when it’s in terribly short supply.

But with climate change—and the erratic weather that it brings—the traditional means of surviving bad times may no longer be enough.

“Climate change is dramatically increasing agricultural risk across the planet,” says Marjorie Victor Brans, a senior policy advisor at Oxfam America. “The frequency of droughts and other shocks in Adi Ha is likely to increase, and poor farmers will be among the hardest hit. It’s a hugely challenging phenomenon.”

With 85 percent of Ethiopians employed in farming, much of it rain-fed, the need for new tools to manage the risks is huge. But the market for insurance is miniscule: only about 300,000 people in a country of nearly 80 million now have it. Extending the option to rural areas is loaded with challenges, not the least of them being the concern that poor farmers simply don’t have the money to pay for premiums—even the smallest one.

Work is the answer

This new program has solved that problem with a simple solution: It has arranged for the poorest farmers to use their labor to buy insurance, tapping into a new social security initiative the Ethiopian government launched a few years ago. Called the Productive Safety Net Program, or PSNP, it helps about 8 million of the country’s most vulnerable residents by providing them with food or cash in exchange for work.  Through the PSNP, 130 Adi Ha farmers are now working extra days on community projects, such as planting trees and grasses to promote soil and water conservation, to pay for their premiums. In this pilot year, Oxfam provided funds to the PSNP to cover this part of the project.

The option to trade labor for insurance has substantially boosted the number of farmers able to participate in the program, nearly doubling the enrollment that was expected.

“It’s good for me to have the insurance as long as I can work and pay with labor,” says Medhin Reda, a single mother who will be working 24 days for her premium. “That is the only asset I have.”

For Selas Samson Biru, who is spending 192 birr on insurance, it will help address the uncertainties that have always been part of farming, especially now that global warming may be altering familiar weather patterns.

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

Farmers take center stage

And the insurance may be extra helpful because it was tailored specifically for farmers like Biru. In fact, she was one of five community members chosen by villagers to join the insurance design team. Twenty-one other farmers participated in a series of test workshops on climate change and financial literacy. Focus group discussions and economic risk simulations carried out in the community helped the design team understand what kind of insurance product would work best in Adi Ha. And on the day of enrollment, about 600 farmers showed up for a host of activities explaining the offerings, including musical performances, a play, peer-to-peer outreach, and financial training.

“Today is a historic day for the farmers of Adi Ha,” said Brans as the activities wound to a close that day and organizers counted the final tally of takers. Among the 200 were 75 women, which represents about 22 percent of all female-headed households in Adi Ha—one of the most vulnerable groups the project  is aiming to help. On average, farmers are paying 138 birr for their premiums—or a little more than $12 each. Some chose packages that allowed them to pay as little as 76 birr, or about $6.75. The maximum premium was 288 birr, or just over $23.

“We are experimenting,” said Gebru Kahsay a few months after investing 192 birr into an insurance package. “We started with teff. If we find the insurance is good, we’ll continue. If we fail, we will take a lesson from it.”

Next steps

Lots of learning has already taken place during the 18 months Oxfam and its partners spent in preparation for the launch of this project. And each of those partners has been contributing its own expertise. Besides the Relief Society of Tigray, or REST, one of the largest aid groups in Africa which has worked closely with the people of Adi Ha, other partners include the Nyala Insurance Company, an Ethiopian firm that is providing the insurance; Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest insurers which has helped fund the launch and is providing technical expertise; and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, which is providing research on climate data. Additionally, the Dedebit Credit and Savings Institution, or DECSI, the primary provider of loans to families in Adi Ha, helped both to design the pilot and to educate farmers about the pros and cons of insurance.

“We had to work very hard to design a risk management package that was affordable and attractive to farmers, while still being potentially profitable to the insurance industry,” says Bekabil Fufa, an agricultural expert in Oxfam America’s Horn of Africa regional office. “And we had to make it compelling to government and donors who feel it will address the threat of climate change.”

With a solid model now in place, Oxfam is planning in the coming year to expand the initiative into four new villages in Tigray--the region where Adi Ha is located—and into one village in Amhara, another drought-prone region to the south. Eventually, the project partners  would like to see weather insurance offered to poor farmers throughout  Ethiopia.

It will require a leap of faith by farmers across the country as well as support from the government, donors, NGOs, and the private sector,” says Gebremichael. “But given the long lead times required to build resiliency to climate change, we can’t afford to wait until tomorrow to try.”

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