Keeping food on the table no matter the weather

Crop insurance brings food security for farmers in Kenya

World Food Programme Insight
5 min readApr 27, 2020


Story by Alessandro Abbonizio

Kavemba Nzuki, a farmer enrolled in the World Food Programme’s R4 Rural Resilience Initiative (R4) poses for a picture with a harvest of cowpeas from her farm in Kitui County in eastern Kenya. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

It is crop cutting time for Kavemba Nzuki, a smallholder farmer from Kitui County in eastern Kenya. She climbs over the white string that demarcates two sample areas or ‘boxes’ on her farm and begins harvesting the cowpeas, careful to keep the contents of each box separate.

A semi-arid region which suffers from climatic shocks and erratic rainfall patterns, Kitui is at the forefront of Kenya’s battle against climate change and food insecurity.

Kavemba, 50, is one of almost 9,000 farmers enrolled in the World Food Programme’s (WFP) R4 Rural Resilience Initiative for the October to December 2019 short rains season. In partnership with Caritas Kitui and the County government of Kitui, the initiative, which began in 2017, enables the poorest farmers to manage climate risk through crop insurance that they can access by participating in risk reduction activities.

Kavemba’s harvested cowpeas are weighed in order to calculate the yield index of her farm. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

Kavemba hoists the two bags of harvested cowpeas onto her shoulders and heads back towards the homestead where a digital scale suspended from a tree branch is set up to weigh the crops.

“I once received 4,600 Kenya Shillings (US$46) in compensation,” said Kavemba, “I used all of it to pay school fees for my children. Without the crop insurance I would be unable to feed my family or pay school fees,” she said.

Thanks to funding from USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and Global Affairs Canada, farmers in Kitui County are insured for over Kshs 106m(approx US$1m) for the 2019–2020 season.

This year, and for the first time since the R4 Initiative began, Kavemba and other enrolled farmers (85 percent of whom are women)are contributing themselves to the insurance premium, each paid Kshs 100 (US$ 1) for the season. Farmers are insured for one acre of their land.

Is crop cutting the same as harvesting?

They may sound the same but they are not! Understanding how insurance works and the circumstances under which payouts are made is complex. The crop cutting process is designed to help farmers understand how payouts are calculated so only the amount harvested from within the two boxes marked out by string is used to calculate the crop yield index for the farm.

In partnership with Pula Advisors who act as the enumerators, the crop cuts process involves the random selection of at least 30 enrolled farmers to help calculate the yield index for each farm.

The sampled area must contain at least one of the following four drought-resistant crops: cowpeas, green grams, millet or sorghum. After harvesting, the crops are weighed twice, once before drying and again after drying and threshing. The two bags are weighed separately and an average of the two figures is used to calculate the yield index of the farm.

“A farmer is compensated for the difference between the weight of what they have harvested and the average weight of the historical yields of that given ecological area,” said Eadel Amusengeri, Project Lead at Pula Advisors.

Kavemba harvests cowpeas (L) from one of the demarcated sample areas (also known as boxes) and places the crops from each box in separate bags. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

Applying lessons learnt

Kavemba used to be enrolled in WFP’s Food for Assets Programme (FFA) where farmers were given food or cash in exchange for the construction of risk reduction assets such as zai pits (shallow half moons which preserve water) in which to grow crops, water pans for harvesting rainwater and terracing to maximise usage of available farmland. The knowledge gained under the FFA Programme has enabled farmers to apply these technologies to help mitigate against repeated droughts and erratic rainfall.

“Before the Food for Assets Programme, I was unable to harvest even one sack of green grams,” said Kavemba, “Now, I can harvest two ninety-kilogram sacks of green grams and one ninety-kilogram sack of cowpeas,” she said.

Kavemba’s food security has increased with the creation of risk reduction assets such as zai pits and water pans on her farm. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

But with increasing temperatures and less recorded rainfall in recent years, asset creation in Kitui County is not enough to guarantee food security for farmers like Kavemba.

When faced with failed harvests in previous years, farmers would often resort to selling livestock, chopping down their trees for charcoal and even walking several kilometres to fetch and sell water in order to buy food and to pay school fees. Under the R4 Initiative, farmers are financially compensated if their crop yields are low which enables them to keep their animals and other assets and still be food secure.

“Our data shows that crop insurance payouts have been critical in protecting poor families in times of severe drought or other shocks,” said Shaun Hughes, Head of Food Systems and Resilient Livelihoods at WFP in Kenya. “However, insurance alone is not a magic bullet; that’s why we integrate it with improved farming techniques and infrastructure. If more smallholder farmers had access to this kind of initiative, the need and cost of humanitarian assistance could be vastly reduced,” he said.

The Future

The R4 Rural Resilience Initiative provides an important platform for educating smallholder farmers on climate risk adaptation. By insisting on farmer participation in risk reduction activities as a pre-requisite to joining the Initiative, WFP is helping farmers to reduce the risk of crop failure and facilitating an insurance policy that covers them in the event of climatic shocks.

Some of the almost 9,000 farmers enrolled in WFP’s R4 Initiative pose for a picture in Kitui Town. Photo: WFP/Alessandro Abbonizio

The use of the crop cuts process is a tangible and familiar exercise that helps farmers to understand the complex methodology of measuring crop yields which ultimately triggers any insurance payouts.

Given the positive changes brought about by the R4 Initiative in Kitui County, such as improved school attendance, reduced family debt and the economic empowerment of women, there are plans to scale-up to other semi-arid counties in 2020. WFP and partners are already investing in increasing the number of insured farmers to attract the interest of private insurance companies who could offer additional affordable crop insurance products to vulnerable and food insecure Kenyan households.