5 March 2013

Kenya: Urban Poor Feel the Rural Pull as Insurance Makes Farming Viable

Embu — Since she began insuring her crops against erratic weather two years ago, Goretta Wanjiru has gained peace of mind about her livelihood as a farmer. But just as importantly, she has also got her son back.

Wanjiru's crop insurance is an innovation for Kenya and one of the country's first schemes covering farmers against losses incurred due to drought or excessive rain.

It comes to the rescue of struggling farmers like the 59-year-old widow, who is now able to protect some of her savings that were previously spent on offsetting her losses.

The plan, run by the Sygenta Foundation, UAP Insurance and telecommunications company Safaricom, compensates farmers in kind with fertilizer and seed for losses to crops like maize, wheat, beans and sorghum, with the aim of helping them restart farming after a loss.

An unexpected benefit, however, is that the added income stability is helping lure some young people back to farming.

As Wanjiru works on her one-acre (0.4 hectare) farm at Kiritiri village in Eastern Kenya, gusts of wind flick away dried maize stalks that shrivelled due to poor rains the previous season. Experts attribute the increasingly unpredictable precipitation to the effects of climate change.

"I had insured my seed, so I am not worried because I did not harvest enough," says Wanjiru as she spreads a handful of manure on the freshly tilled earth. "I am preparing for the planting season."

Two years ago on a sunny morning like today, Wanjiru would have been working alone on the farm, with only the chirping of the birds and the occasional greetings of a passerby to keep her company.

These days, however, her 32-year-old son, Paul Kariuki, works nearby, persuaded to return home from Nairobi, Kenya's capital, by his mother's change in farming fortunes.

TOUGH TIMES IN THE CITY

After completing high school, Kariuki had idled at home for five years because his mother could not raise fees to pay for his son's college education. Eventually he moved to Nairobi, planning to land a good enough job to support his family. But his high hopes butted up against a tough reality.

"I survived on odd jobs like being a push cart operator," recalls Kariuki. "The little I earned was not even enough for me to afford a decent meal."

After his mother talked to him about new projects to support farming, he decided to return home to Embu County.

Kiriuki's return brought his mother happiness, and also something else of value - a small investment in the farm, where he now grows kale, tomatoes and onions.

"He was happy when I promised to buy him a water sprinkler to start his own farm project instead of wasting away in the city," says Wanjiru. "He came back home last year and has moved on with life."

As he tends the young vegetables just a few yards from where his mother is working, Kariuki hums happily, with an occasional dismissive laugh when asked about his life in the city.

Embu, a semi-arid region, can be a difficult place to reap a harvest. Local weather stations record daytime temperatures as high as 27 Celsius, while the average annual rainfall is about 1,200 mm (47 inches).

But some, like Kariuki's mother and 11,000 other farmers across Kenya reportedly insured by the scheme, no longer grumble about failed crops.

"I feel less burdened when I receive the insurance compensation," explains Wanjiru. "I can save some money to do other small investments and this is how I was able to help my son to start the vegetable project."

To gain the insurance coverage, Wanjiru was required to buy a kilogramme of improved seed and a 10 kilogramme bag of fertiliser from a local agricultural dealer, for a total cost of 34 Kenyan shillings (about $0.40).

In the event meteorologists record extreme weather considered likely to harm crops, she and other insured farmers receive an automatic payout equivalent to a portion - or all - of what their harvest might have earned.

Such innovations are being seen in rural Kenya as a way to slow the number of youth migrating to the cities to look for jobs.

LURED BACK HOME

The Kenya Institute for Public Policy and Analysis, a think tank, says some of Kenya's youth are returning to farming because of high urban unemployment rates. According to a recent report by the institute, about 1.5 million youth living in cities are without work due to lack of formal education.

"Most of these youth have skill sets that enable them to adopt to extreme situations," says James Kinyangi of the Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. "Kenya needs these skills to develop short- and medium-term solutions in agriculture."

However, the government believes the return of some urban migrants to their rural farms is also the result of government efforts to use newly "devolved" regional spending to subsidise community projects in health, education and agriculture to help foster more lively economies in villages.

"Initiatives such as the youth enterprise development fund provide small, low-interest loans to young people seeking financial support. These help in tackling unemployment," says Mugo Kibati, chief executive of Vision 2030, the Kenyan government's growth blueprint. He points to the government's willingness to work with the private sector and its support for crop insurance.

At Kariuki's village, the devolved fund has established an irrigation project that taps water from a distance of more than 20 km (12 miles). Kariuki now draws on this water for his small vegetable plot.

"Starting such an investment would not have been possible previously because of reliance on rainfall, which sometimes failed," he says. "I left for the city because of unemployment, but now I am learning to be self-employed through vegetable farming."

Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.

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