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Drought insurance falls short for some Kenyan herders

by Abjata Khalif | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 15 December 2011 14:29 GMT

Some say payout money isn't enough to replace dead animals, while others will use it to repay debts

MARSABIT, Kenya (AlertNet) - The rains have finally arrived in northern Kenya’s Marsabit district, and Huka Dabaso plans to buy 10 cattle to replace the animals he lost during this year’s severe drought. He can afford to restock his herd thanks to the first payout from a pioneering insurance scheme that uses satellite imagery to estimate livestock deaths in the region.

“This programme will assist me and others in restocking, and starting pastoralism afresh at this time when we are receiving rains and hoping the situation will change,” says the herder from Gadamojii village. “In the past we used to depend on assistance from government agencies, and there was no guarantee.”

In late October, 650 herders received compensation for the loss of thousands of cows, camels, goats and sheep due to the drought. The payout from the index-based insurance scheme being piloted in Marsabit by the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), together with commercial, research and government partners, has elicited mixed reactions from herders. But most say it will help them recover from this crisis better than in the past.

Up to a third of livestock in Marsabit district are estimated to have died during this year’s drought, which has affected over 13 million people across the Horn of Africa.

The insurance scheme uses NASA satellite images of vegetation to determine losses of livestock forage, which are fed into a statistical model that projects livestock deaths. The aim is to make it easier for communities of migratory herders, known as pastoralists, to cope with and recover from extreme weather.

Herders in high-risk drought areas pay a premium of 5.5 percent of the value of their herds, while those from lower-risk areas pay 3.25 percent. Clients are compensated when indicators show their animals are at risk of death. The insurers do not assess actual livestock losses on an individual basis, which would be impossible as pastoralists and their animals move over vast tracts of arid land in search of pasture and water.


Most pastoralists who took out insurance cover are optimistic that their payouts will help them restock their hard-hit herds. But others say they have lost many animals and the compensation is not enough to replace them, as livestock are scarce in local markets and their prices have soared.

“(My) payout cannot fetch me even half of the animals I had before they were killed off by drought,” says Abudho Ilalo, a livestock farmer from Dirib Gombo village, who had hoped to be able to replace 30 of his original 70 cattle.

“The price of the few available livestock has gone up and it’s costly, so I will only buy a few and use the rest of the insurance money to pay other living expenses,” he says.

Asha Wario, a mother of four from Maikona village, lost all her animals between March and August. “The situation was so bad that I took many credits from shops to feed my family and I borrowed money to pay school fees for my two children at secondary school,” she explains. “I have received the (insurance) payout, and I must balance things now between paying the credits and restocking (my herd).”

Wario says she was able to gain credit on the strength of the insurance policy she had purchased from Equity Bank in Marsabit.

But could an earlier payout have helped prevent her and others from getting into debt as the drought really started to bite? ILRI consultant Monenobu Ikegami told AlertNet that the index-based insurance policy is governed by a set timetable with two assessments per year - March and September.

The data gathered in March this year did not warrant a payout. But by September, the effects of the drought were reflected in the satellite imagery, which was then shared with the partner insurers and a payout scheduled for the following month.


Local NGOs are hopeful that the ILRI-backed insurance scheme will reduce the cattle-rustling that has plagued the region after recent droughts, as many herders resort to stealing animals in armed attacks.

“This area is a hotspot of such activities after drought periods and it has led to high hostilities between herders and families,” says Adan Garad, executive director of the Wagalla Centre for Peace and Human Rights. He believes the insurance payout will deter cattle raiding, and should be rolled out to all districts in northern Kenya.

Under the policy terms, insured pastoralists are compensated for herd losses of above 15 percent. Most people in Marsabit District are herders, together owning some 86,000 cattle and two million goats and sheep.

But some have been reluctant to buy the innovative insurance cover, preferring to rely on traditional knowledge to guide them through seasonal fluctuations and drought cycles. One common coping strategy is to move livestock along well-known corridors into neighbouring countries, including Ethiopia, to search for pasture in tough times.

Galgalo Wario, a herder from Dirib Gombo village, says he decided not to join the insurance scheme, instead selling off his weaker animals and moving stronger ones to better grazing lands, hoping to keep them alive until after the drought. He was wary because neighbours told him any payout would cover only a fixed percentage of animals per herder, and not necessarily all that died.

After losing 58 goats and 33 cattle, Wario now wishes he had insured his livestock, and says he is praying hard that the government will launch a restocking project. Stephen Ebulan, a herder from Loyangalani, also regrets not taking out insurance cover despite attending a workshop about the scheme.

“It’s a sad moment for me as I bowed out of insuring my livestock and I lost everything,” he says, adding that he had been reluctant to sell some of his goats to pay the insurance premium. “Something stopped me - I think it’s the Turkana cultural belief of jealously guarding your livestock and not disposing of it in such manner.

“Now I have lost 50 goats and 76 heads of cattle. I sit idle waiting for relief food, and (to see) if the Kenyan government will start a restocking programme, which they did in the past.”

It is unclear whether a restocking scheme will be launched, however, since the World Bank has suspended funding to the Arid Lands Resource Management Project, which managed such efforts in the past. The move followed an audit that uncovered fraudulent spending, although the Kenyan government recently said it had returned some of the money.


Ekai Silale of the Pastoralist Empowerment Programme based in Loyangalani says a large-scale awareness campaign is required to explain that insurance is a form of protection, and to overcome the long-held belief that pastoralists have no choice but stick with their herds until they lose them to climate or other shocks, and then start all over again. 

Silale says this traditional approach has led to rising mental illness from the stress of losing large herds, as well as fuelling livestock theft and the associated risks of death, displacement, rape and wider insecurity. Silale believes more education about the benefits of insurance would help local communities shift from traditional methods of pastoralism to a new model incorporating safeguards and safety nets.

ILRI Director General Jimmy Smith admits that some herders have stayed out of the scheme due to a lack of understanding about how they would be compensated. But he hopes the first payout and accompanying celebrations will encourage more pastoralists to join.

Nonetheless, the insurance programme may need to adapt its conditions to make it accessible to some of the most vulnerable local people. Adhi Galma, chairlady of the Turbi Conflict Widows Association, says most women-led households where she lives could not purchase cover because they had too few animals to qualify.

In 2005, the Turbi area – known for its rich pasture – was embroiled in a conflict over land between two pastoralist communities, which claimed many lives and caused people to flee.  While peace has been officially restored, the land ownership dispute is still simmering and sometimes erupts into violence. The conflict has left families without husbands and fathers, and has stoked poverty in the area.

“Most families lost livestock during the Turbi conflict, and we have remained with just a few goats and cattle, and we have the enormous responsibility of heading our homes. The scheme doesn’t cover the few livestock we have, and we are appealing to the insurance people to accommodate us,” Galma says.

The scheme currently requires herders to insure a minimum of 10 goats, while most widows only keep several animals. ILRI consultant Ikegami said discussions are being held with insurers to work out how to cater for this social group with very few livestock.

The programme is still in its pilot phase, and is looking to address challenges that are arising before it is expanded to other pastoralist areas, the economist added.

The next step is to launch a similar insurance scheme in the Borana region of Ethiopia, which borders Marsabit, and the funding is now in place to design an insurance contract, Ikegami said.

Abjata Khalif is a freelance journalist, based in Wajir, Kenya, with an interest in climate change issues.

This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.

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