Nelly Bassily | October 4, 2010
The fields beside the Embu-Siakago road, northeast of Nairobi, look dry and dusty. The last rains were in April, five months ago. Neither the farmers nor the local meteorologist can tell when it will rain again.
Local families like Mr. Kariki Karigi’s practice subsistence farming. They grow beans and hybrid maize. The farmers are vulnerable because the rains are unpredictable. Hybrid maize is not indigenous, and has little or no tolerance to drought.
Mr. Karigi says, “We plant and pray for a good harvest. Many times the crops will wilt away just before maturity, which is a major cause of poverty here.”
Many farmers cannot provide a full day’s food for their family. They depend on relief food, or migrate to areas where they can find work.
When the local agriculture officer told Mr. Karigi that he could insure his hybrid maize seeds and be compensated if the crop failed, he jumped at the chance.
The Kenya-based UAP Insurance Company partnered with Safaricom and Sygenta Foundation for Sustainable Development to offer crop insurance to about 12,000 small-scale farmers across Kenya. Currently the insurance covers wheat and maize. It is known as Kilimo Salama, or “safe farming.” Farmers can receive payouts through the mobile phone payment system called M-PESA.
Mr. Karigi insured one kilogram of maize seed. The seed cost him 200 Kenyan shillings. He paid an insurance premium of five per cent, which is 10 shillings. He planted the maize and harvested 10 bags from his half-hectare farm.
The size of the insurance payouts depends on the drop in yields. For example, an estimated 15 per cent decrease in yield, based on rainfall data, triggers a payment of 15 per cent of the insured value of the crop. The payment is designed to ensure that farmers have money to buy seeds for next season.
Data from a weather station showed that, while rainfall in the area had been good, it was less than normal. This affected the harvest and triggered compensation payments for 135 farmers. Last week, Mr. Karigi received 100 Kenyan shillings.
He says, “I will add to this money to buy pesticides. For me it is a fair payment because I understood the project from the start and harvested some maize although it is not what I expected.”
Other farmers, however, dismiss the payments as too little. Mr. Nahason Mwangi was disappointed by the 110 shillings he received. He says, “While I am happy the insurance firm has honoured its promise, the money is not enough to buy even one kilogram of seeds. I will not buy this insurance again if they cannot cover inputs like labour.”
Agriculture experts recommend that farmers in drought-prone areas switch from maize to indigenous and drought-tolerant crops such as cassava and sorghum. But farmers cannot always find reliable or certified planting material.
Mr. Joseph Kamiri is head of marketing and distribution with UAP Insurance. He says, “We can only insure indigenous crops if we know the seeds are of high quality and if the Ministry of Agriculture provides adequate information on such crops.”
Maize breeders in Kenya are currently developing drought-tolerant maize. But planting it could cause controversy because the variety will be genetically modified.