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With insurance, loans, and confidence, this Ethiopian farmer builds her resilience

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Selas Samson Biru has invested in her own pump to irrigate her fields.

One day in early August, as Selas Samson Biru strode toward her field of peppers in the remote Ethiopian village of Adi Ha, clouds piled overhead, dark and heavy, and the wind snapped at her shawl. Would it rain?

In a country where most farmers depend on rain to feed their crops and guarantee their harvests, that question is omnipresent: It's about survival. And there's no sure way to answer it.

But there is a way to manage the uncertainty it breeds, and Biru, with steady steps, is slowly freeing herself from the constraints of an increasingly erratic climate. Her tools? An entrepreneurial drive and—now—weather insurance for her crops through a program that has grown to reach more than 13,000 farmers in Tigray since its launch in Adi Ha in 2009.

Biru, a 50-year-old mother of six children, was among the first farmers in this rocky northern region to invest in the insurance when Oxfam America, together with the Relief Society of Tigray and a host of partners, began offering it as a way to help families build resilience in the face of repeated drought. If there is insufficient rain during a critical period of the growing cycle, farmers will receive a payout for the crop they have insured.

And even those too poor to have cash on hand can get insurance: They can pay for their premiums in exchange for working on projects that help their communities reduce the risk of future disasters , such as by planting trees to preserve the topsoil. Of the 13,195 farmers now insured, 91 percent of them, or 12,064, are trading their labor for their premiums. And many of the households that have bought insurance are headed by women—3,610 of them.

Biru has been able to pay for her insurance with cash. This year, she bought a package for 200 birr, or about $11.75. It will cover her teff, a tiny grain and a staple of the Ethiopian diet used to make a bread called injera.

A smart investment

In Adi Ha, the weather has not been severe enough—yet—to trigger a payout. But Biru is convinced that investing in insurance is a smart move and that the program should be scaled up to reach farmers in other parts of Ethiopia. Without the cushion insurance provides, families who lose their harvests and have nothing to fall back on could be forced to migrate far from their homes or to sell precious household resources—like a cow—to buy food.

"This insurance is very good," said Biru. "It's saving our assets in a bad year."

And perhaps it's that confidence that is also helping her take other well-considered risks that are allowing her to build a more secure future for her family.

In 2009, the first year weather insurance was available, Biru joined a group of 10 farmers and together they bought a pump to irrigate some of their crops. Her contribution was 4,000 birr—or about $235. In 2010, with the proceeds from an abundant harvest of peppers, Biru was able to pay off the loan for her share of the pump.

Soon after, she took an even bigger plunge: With a new loan, she invested 14,000 birr, or about $823, in her own pump, available to use whenever she needs it. In August, she had already reaped 2,000 birr-worth of peppers from her field, and was looking forward to continuous harvests in the future.

"This is more productive compared to maize," said Biru. "Maize you harvest once. This you harvest every week."

Peppers won't be her only cash crop from this newly irrigated land. Scattered amidst the plants are 60 orange tree seedlings and 30 mango tree seedlings.

"If we manage it very well, we can start the first harvest (from the trees) after four years," Biru said.

Challenges, still

For all Biru's progress, farming in Tigray is not an easy undertaking. And one of the biggest challenges, she said, is the cost of fertilizer. The price keeps climbing.

"It's 1,000 birr per quintal (or about $58 for 220 pounds)," said Biru, recalling when it was a fraction of that price two decades ago. "Our land can't perform well without fertilizer, but fertilizer is very expensive…Most of our money is invested in fertilizer."

But most of her pride is invested in her children: all six of them have been able to attend school. Her oldest son has a degree in accounting and a daughter has a degree in engineering. Three of the others are still making their way through, while a middle son has decided to stop his education and assume—eventually—responsibility for his parents and the land they have worked so hard to cultivate.

Weather insurance may make his job, and the job of countless farmers like him, easier in the years ahead. The initiative is now set to expand into three new countries with the help of the World Food Programme. And its focus has broadened to promote a variety of tools that will help rural families build their resilience including access to credit, the encouragement to save, and steps to reduce the risks of disaster.

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