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In Kenya, Insuring Pastoralists Against Increasing Risks

February 5, 2010

[Source: Susan Anyangu-Amu for IPS News]

The droughts in the Turkana region were less severe when she was growing up, says Laura Letapalel, and pastoralists could still find some grass and water for their animals. Now, she laments, the droughts are longer and there is nothing to eat.

Andrew Mude, an economist with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), says drought is the greatest hazard encountered by herders.

“This is particularly true for northern Kenya, where more than three million pastoralist households are regularly hit by increasingly severe droughts. In the past 100 years, northern Kenya has recorded 28 major droughts, four of which occurred in the last 10 years,” Mude explains.

“In our community the size of one’s herd is what signifies his status economically. However, of late we have noticed drastic weather patterns that have left our herds dead, turning once rich men into paupers,” says Letapalel a pastoralist in the Turkana area of Kenya.

Esekon Longuramoe, another pastoralist from Turkana, says erratic climatic conditions have changed his fortunes.

“When we first came here, I saw two beautiful things: there was so much grass and a lot of wild animals. It was a nice grazing place. But now there is no rain, and I have lost 100 sheep and 50 cattle.

“After losing almost all my livestock, I have become so poor that I cannot compare myself to the way I used to be. Even if I wanted to move, I do not have a donkey to carry my possessions, I would have to borrow one,” he says.

The question of how to cushion pastoralist communities against the devastating effects of drought has been a headache for the government of Kenya.

A new project launched by ILRI and its partners promises to help pastoralists.

“Thousands of herders in Marsabit District, a remote, arid area in northern Kenya, will be able to purchase insurance policies for their livestock, based on a first-of-its-kind programme in Africa that uses satellite images of grass and other vegetation to indicate whether drought will put their camels, cows, goats and sheep at risk of starvation,” Mude says.

The programme will use satellite images to assess the state of grazing land. This information will be matched against records of livestock deaths collected over the past decade to calculate stock losses for insurance purposes. This index-based insurance system eliminates the need to verify the individual deaths of animals.

The Marsabit district – adjacent to Turkana – has been divided into two clusters based on risk. It will cost 5.5 percent of the value of livestock to insure animals in Maikona and North Horr divisions; in Laisamis, Loyangalani, Central and Gadamoji, it will cost 3.25 percent.

“We believe this programme has potential because it has the elements insurers need to operate: a well-known risk (drought) and an external indicator that is verifiable and cannot be manipulated, in this case satellite images of the vegetation,” says James Wambugu, managing director of UAP Insurance, which is providing the risk cover.

Sales of the insurance scheme began across the district in January. The premiums can be paid at branches of Equity Bank in Marsabit, or to Point of Sale agents under the Hunger Safety Net Programmes – a scheme that provides regular cash grants to 300,000 vulnerable households in arid districts of northern Kenya and has a presence in most of the major communities in Marsabit.

According to Mude, Marsabit district currently supports about 86,000 head of cattle and some two million sheep and goats which depend on naturally growing vegetation for survival. The livestock in Marsabit alone is estimated to be worth 67 million dollars, though animals are rarely sold or slaughtered.

Given the complexity of the insurance project, a simulation game was developed to help the local communities understand the key features of the insurance policy. Mude says many of the herders who played the game became intensely involved in the simulation.

“The simulation helps them understand how insurance can protect them against losses. They also appear to simply enjoy playing the game itself, which generates a lot of animated discussion,” he explains.

The insurance is valuable even without the deaths of livestock triggering payments.

The policy can be used to obtain credit with which to buy feed or drugs that could help animals survive tough conditions. Expanding herds may also be made easier; private creditors will be more willing to lend if the risk of losing new animals to drought is insured against.

Mude says the pilot project will last three years, during which studies will be carried out to establish the commercial sustainability of the product. If it proves successful, extending it to parts of Uganda, Southern Ethiopia, West Africa and even Asia will also be explored.

Index-based livestock insuranceData on vegetation availability will be derived from satellite images of plant growth in the region that are part of a global survey known as the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) a database regularly updated by scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“To develop the livestock insurance program, we used NDVI data collected since 1981. This information was combined with data on livestock deaths that have been collected monthly since 2000 by the Kenya Arid Lands Resource Management Project and USAID’s Pastoral Risk Management Project,” International Livestock Research Institute economist Andrew Mude says.

“The reason this system can work is that getting compensation does not require verifying that an animal is actually dead. Payments kick in when the satellite images, which are available practically in real time, show us that forage (vegetation) has become so scarce that animals are likely to perish.”

NASA’s satellites take fresh pictures of the entire globe’s surface every ten days; Mude says it will be easy to replicate the insurance project across wider areas if it is successful.

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