A turn to crop insurance

By Dyson Mthawanji*

The climate has really changed. Its effects have forced various stakeholders to brainstorm ways of cushioning the impact of this global problem. No wonder crop insurance is now dominating the agricultural conversations in agriculture sector. Crop insurance is there to reduce impact of drought and natural hazards.

Just a couple of years back, it was impossible to insure a small holder farmers in Malawi. There were many risks, lack of data, ignorance about insurance and a lack of interest from insurers. Fortunately, the situation is changing for the better as smallholder farmers are becoming knowledgeable about this panacea.  Thanks to digital technology. It is now possible to insure crops across the nation if the farmers individually or through cooperatives are willing to adopt this solution. Every farmer can be insured against any peril; disease, pests, drought, floods, storms, and cyclones.

“I had never heard about weather insurance. I only knew about vehicle insurance. Last year, it did not rain for twenty-five days in my area during the rainy season so I only harvested two bags of maize compared to an average of ten bags in the past growing seasons. I now want to get more knowledge on crop insurance so that I can be covered in times of disaster like the one I experienced last year,” said Mercy Thom, a smallholder farmer from Mchinji.

Indeed, agricultural experts have touted crop insurance as the way to go in as far as fighting against effects of climate change is concerned. Digital mapping of the nation into agro ecological zones provides the platform to cover every key crop in Malawi; maize, pigeon peas, soya beans, ground nuts, tobacco and sugar cane against these perils.

Farmers will be compensated for yield losses incurred as a result of these perils by a consortium of eight local insurance companies led by NICO Insurance Company, and supported by Pula advisors, an international technology firm based in Kenya that provides the data to make this possible.

Pula partners with insurance companies, governments, and loan providers to bundle insurance with the inputs farmers want and need like seed, fertilizer and credit.

 “Our mission is to empower smallholder farmers in emerging markets by providing agricultural insurance that protects them against climate risk, weather shocks and pests or diseases. Agriculture is the backbone of Malawi’s economy and farmers are the prime stakeholders in agriculture sector, therefore, we should not just stand and watch when they are being disturbed by effects of climate change; we should join hands and provide shelter for them. Thus, crop insurance is the shelter they have been looking for,” said Pula Commercial Manager, Joshua Wamae.

So far Pula has reached to eleven countries and 1.7 million farmers. Pula has become a reliable partner in countries where it operates. The organisation monitors the whole farming cycle to be alert on any possible disaster, shock and risk that tries to paralyse any agricultural activity. For example, when there is insurance for seed, Pula monitors rainfall using satellite data. If rain is insufficient in the first 21 days, farmers receive an SMS voucher for replacement bag of seed to replant to pick at an agro-dealer.

A failed crop of maize

“Furthermore, for insurance for seed and fertilizer, at the end of the season, Pula does yield measurements according to agro-ecological zones. If farmers’ yields were below the average for their defined area, they receive a cash payout or replacement product SMS voucher to pick at an agrodealer,” said Wamae.

Pula’s Yield Index Insurance (YII) covers all risks that affect yield. YII cover insures the value of the purchased inputs against low yield, and would replace the purchase to registered farmers at the end of the season. Under this cover, the country is divided into agro-ecological zones based on historical rainfall, temperatures, prior yields and others. Average historical yield data is determined for each zone based on past data.

At the end of the season, trained enumerators measure yield levels for each agro-ecological zone. With this information, farmers will receive compensation if yields in a specific agroecological zone are below a determined trigger level.

Besides covering risk, the Pula firm platform makes it easy for banks to lend to smallholder farmers whose risks will now be covered by local insurance companies.

Malawi once experimented crop insurance with an AU backed insurance company in 2015/16 but the government suspended its services after the nation suffered drought and poor compensation due to inadequate technology. The government made premium payments internationally without any participation of local insurance firms in the venture.

Peacock Seeds Managing Director, Felix Jumbe, who has also worked closely with smallholder farmers in his former capacity as president of Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM), said insurance is important and Malawi needs to adopt it in its entirety. He said insurance improves climate resiliency, food security and household savings.

Pula insurance payouts are key in stabilising household incomes during droughts and severe weather events. Farmers invest insurance payouts into the livelihoods of families through closing the food shortage, saving and paying off debts, and investing in assets like livestock and children’s education. Crop insurance may lead to improved food security among many farmers in disaster prone areas in Malawi. Recently, 80 percent of Kenyan households used some of their insurance payouts to purchase food and escaped hunger.

Crop insurance also leads to increased investment in productive assets and livelihoods. In Kenya, 70 percent of insured households invested their payouts in livestock, while 80 percent of households invested a portion of their payouts into school fees.

“When I planted without insurance, I took a risk that it was okay if I harvested low yields. I was 50-50. But now, I am 99 percent assured,” said Kenyan Anastasia Ngala who benefited from Pula’s crop insurance.

Insurance gave Anastasia the confidence that she can provide for her family and grow her farming capabilities to new levels.

In Malawi, Pula has started with 26,000 farmers in its database. The number is likely to increase considering that the registered farmers are carrying message about crop insurance to other farmers. These farmers received a small monetary incentive to motivate others to adopt crop insurance.

Pula’s passion to protect farmers is in line with the agenda of Insurance Association of Malawi (IAM) whose role is to provide low cost insurance products targeting vulnerable people. “Our association wants to civic educate the rural masses about the need to buy insurance through financial literacy. We also want to bundle insurance products with loans by partnering with financial institutions,” said Master Mbale, a member of IAM.

*Mthawanji is the Communications Manager at Civil Society Agriculture Network (CISANET). He is writing in his personal capacity.