Millions of rural households in Kenya rely on agriculture for their income, but a warming climate is bringing more intense and frequent droughts
By Wesley Langat
MACHAKOS, Kenya, Oct 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For the past two years, Beatrice Ndavi, a 56-year-old farmer in central Kenya, has received vouchers for good-quality seeds and fertiliser, as well as training to improve her yields.
The support is offered on credit as part of an insurance scheme that provides security for the farmer's loan by paying it down if her harvest is damaged by extreme weather.
Ndavi, a mother of six from Masii village in Machakos County, explained that in the past, farmers ended up taking out cash loans to cover their needs in an emergency, which they then struggled to pay back.
But under the Risk-Contingent Credit (RCC) scheme she is part of, it has become easier for her to keep going, even if the weather is bad, she said.
"I get the right farm inputs - quality seeds and fertilisers on time - and I'm not worried about how to repay the loan as it's insured," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Millions of rural households in Kenya rely on agriculture for their income, but a warming climate is bringing more intense and frequent droughts, disrupting production.
Recurring losses due to sometimes consecutive years of drought, coupled with the high cost of certified seeds and other inputs, have made poor farmers reluctant to invest in their land, organisations working on the RCC project found.
Apurba Shee, lead researcher with the Natural Resources Institute at Britain's University of Greenwich, said the credit scheme differs from traditional insurance as it takes into account rainfall patterns as they unfold rather than paying out only when harvests fail.
Remote-sensing satellite technology is used to track rainfall in real-time, and if the average drops below a set threshold in any 21-day period during the growing season, it triggers digital payouts that cover farmers' loans.
The system allows for multiple payments spread throughout the season, as rain volumes fluctuate, Shee said.
The RCC programme aims to tackle both credit constraints and risks linked to drought, he said in an interview.
"We are getting clear positive indications in term of increased farming investments (and) farmers going back to farming more often, even after a devastating drought," he added.
According to a 2018 survey, nearly 1,200 farmers in Machakos had enrolled in the RCC scheme, with 40% taking out insured loans to buy farm inputs.
The average amount they received was 8,500 Kenyan shillings ($82), compared with 6,000 shillings ($58) for traditional loans.
In the neighbouring county of Embu, about 800 farmers are taking part in the U.S. government-backed project.
Shee said the RCC scheme had now proved itself to be commercially viable and had the potential to be expanded to other parts of Kenya and semi-arid regions across southern and eastern Africa, as well as along the borders of the Sahara.
Before joining the scheme, Ndavi struggled when persistent drought brought water shortages, as she – like many other farmers in Kenya's drylands – relies on regular rainfall to keep her crops in good health.
In 2017, she lost five acres of planted maize worth $100 because of drought.
"I didn't have any other means of recovering my losses, so I went back to my savings to farm again in the following season," she said, pointing to her land, which was again dry and bare.
More severe droughts are leaving many farmers increasingly vulnerable and with less capital to invest in their business, said Sarfraz Shah, project manager at Nairobi-based APA Insurance, which underwrites the RCC scheme.
Some farmers are wary of borrowing money, and in other cases, financial institutions are reluctant to lend to them, viewing them as high risk – which feeds into a vicious circle of lower productivity, he noted.
"If there is no loan given to these smallholder farmers, they will not be able to farm - but the beauty of this insurance is, if there is bad weather, we pay claims," Shah said.
Moses Kyalo, another farmer from Masii village, said his farm had become more sustainable since he signed up to the RCC scheme in 2017, giving him access to training and insured credit to help boost production.
Last year, he took out a loan for 10,000 shillings and received seeds and fertiliser in lieu of cash.
His crops did not do well because of insufficient rain, but the loan insurance paid off part of his losses, he said.
"It gave me confidence to increase my investments into farming, unlike before," he said.
Farmers in the RCC scheme also receive training in agricultural practices and finance.
Willis Ogutu Odhiambo, an agricultural field officer with Equity Group Foundation, a social arm of Kenya's Equity Bank which provides the training, said some farmers lacked the knowledge to succeed and could not borrow money to expand.
"Or if they get the loans, they misuse it and now they have the burden of repaying the loans," he said.
Liangzhi You, a scientist with the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which co-led and designed the RCC project, emphasised the benefits of helping farmers prepare for and cope better with climate threats.
"If the droughts come, it takes much more resources to deal with than building resilience which is economical and cheaper," he said.
(Reporting by Wesley Langat; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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