Death-Bed Declaration of Iowa Crop Scientist Comes to Life for East African Herders

Deploying satellite data and ping-pong balls to develop drought insurance for pastoral communities

By Andrew Mude @agmude

This week in Des Moines, Iowa hundreds of people from around the world are gathering for a multi-day symposium on agriculture development organized around the World Food Prize award. But as it is every year, the symposium is also, appropriately, a tribute to the person who conceived the prize, the late crop scientist Norman Borlaug.

Dr. Norman Borlaug

Borlaug is a legend for his obsessive insistence that agricultural science must be put into action in the field in ways that benefit both farmers and consumers. His obsession helped save millions from starvation during the Green Revolution and won him the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. More than one speech this week in Iowa will invoke the clarion call to his agricultural colleagues, reportedly issued from his death bed, to “take it to the farmer.”

It’s certainly a sentiment that has animated my work as a development economist, particularly over the last few years as I launched and led an effort to bring livestock insurance to poor herding communities in the rugged rangelands of East Africa. But through this experience, I also have discovered how difficult it can be to follow Borlaug’s path and translate research into practical solutions that improve lives.

Camels at a water point near Wajir, Kenya, March 2014. Photo credit: ILRI/Riccardo Gangale
Our plan was, at its most basic level, quite simple. We wanted to help pastoralists manage the debilitating impact of droughts the way billions of people around the world manage risks in their lives: with insurance. Of course we knew it was going to be more complicated than that, so we did what scientists do and studied every aspect of the situation.

We published several papers, discussed our ideas with our peers and developed policy proposals. We were excited about the approaches we were developing and convinced they would work.

But we quickly realized that even getting the project off the ground would be a challenge. The abstract concept of risk as defined by the world of insurance policies was very difficult to convey to pastoralist communities, as was our plan to use satellite data to monitor grazing conditions. Through trial and error, herders eventually came to understand the benefits of insurance for their livestock. We eventually developed a game to teach the concept — colored ping-pong balls represented the seasons and poker chips stood in for animals. We also used videos, cartoons and radio broadcasts to continue to educate and get the word out about the product. And now that the majority of our customers own mobile phones, we have started exploring how to deliver educational messages through a range of mobile applications.

Community meeting taking place in Borana, Ethiopia. Photo Credit: ILRI

Through this process, we learned what should be obvious but what many development experts and researchers often overlook: culture and historical context shape how communities process information and consider new ideas. We couldn’t market the product like you would sell car insurance in Des Moines or even health insurance in Nairobi. Pastoralist communities maintain cultural practices and strong social ties predominantly through oral, face-to-face communication. If you’re going to introduce a new idea, it requires a commitment to regular in-person interactions, particularly with their respected community leaders.

Then there were lessons we often learned the hard way. There were periods of simmering discontent on both sides due to unclear information, irregular contact and delayed response. Our project ultimately succeeded because we worked with a close network of like-minded partners who developed strong ties with the target communities, which was crucial to building trust and understanding. And maintaining that trust has required remaining engaged, listening to all involved and adjusting our approach when needed. It certainly has reminded us that data doesn’t always tell the full story.

For example, the surveys we conducted after a drought in 2011 showed that insured households made fewer distress livestock sales — when people are forced to sell their animals at rock-bottom prices to earn a bit of cash to buy food or other essentials. In addition, insured households relied less on food aid and were better off in terms of milk productivity and household incomes. Insured families were also better able to protect their children’s nutritional status, particularly youngsters under five years old, who are particularly vulnerable to under-nourishment. Our product was working.

But was it working in a way that best served pastoralist herders? Because we stayed in close contact, we learned that paying claims deep into a drought, with the hope they would help herders replace dead animals, was not the best approach. Instead, herders wanted help preventing losses in the first place. We revamped the process so that payments could go out at the first signs of drought. That’s proven to be more cost effective and more valuable because the payments help pastoralists purchase the feed, medicines or other inputs that can protect their livestock assets until the rains return.

Finally, our original product hadn’t taken into account that most pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa are Muslim, and the Islamic concept of takaful requires risks and benefits to be shared equally among the entire community. We discovered we needed insurance underwriters who could help us offer policies that adhered to Islamic Sharia financial principles.

Shamsa Kosar, a beneficiary of the first sharia compliant insurance, Wajir, Kenya, March 2014
Credit: ILRI/Riccardo Gangale
In 2013, we partnered with Takaful Insurance of Africa, which specializes in Sharia-compliant insurance. We delivered our first Sharia-compliant payouts to pastoralists in Wajir, Kenya, in March 2014. Our work with Takaful has been a testament to the value of partnerships that bring credibility and trust. Hassan Bashir, the CEO of Takaful Insurance of Africa, had grown up in the region and his father is a pastoralist. His coming on board was a signal to the community that the product was a worthwhile investment. We greatly expanded our pool of customers.

These are just a few examples of what was required in following Norman Borlaug’s edict: “taking” our concept of livestock insurance, applying it the affected communities and developing a coalition of partners that would ensure it had maximum impact and on a large scale. But I’d like to think that what our team has ultimately learned from Dr. Borlaug is that in the world of agricultural development, there are no static “solutions” to the problems of hunger and poverty. Instead, agricultural development is about embracing a long-term process and assuming there will be need for regular adjustments along the way to respond to new insights and shifting conditions on the ground. That’s something Borlaug, who once called the Green Revolution a “temporary success in the war against hunger,” well understood.

Still, sometimes we need a simple idea to propel us forward, even if it leads to a more complicated set of actions. That’s why I think Borlaug’s restless spirit and his insistence that we must “take it to the farmer” can inspire a new generation of agricultural researchers to work directly with the poor and vulnerable food producers of the world to help them rise above a daily struggle to survive.

Andrew Mude is a principal economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the 2016 Norman Borlaug Field Award recipient. Mude leads a project called Index-Based Livestock Insurance (IBLI), which is greatly reducing the vulnerability of East Africa’s livestock herding families to recurring droughts.