Milking it? Ethiopian farmers fight drought with insured cows

  • By Andualem Sisay Gessesse
  • 24/05/2019

Ethiopian farmers crush the wheat with their cows, an ancient technique still used in the highlands, during harvest near Mekele, northeast Ethiopia November 25, 2004. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti


ARBA MINCH, Ethiopia - After farmer Manza Bulacho's crops were wiped out in a drought that devastated parts of Ethiopia in 2017, the father of 10 hoped a cow could keep him going.

Bulacho, 42, who lives near the city of Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia, joined a programme that helped him borrow money to purchase a dairy cow and get it insured.

The milk would bring in much-needed income - as much as 300 birr ($10.45) a day, he was told.

As climate change tests the livelihoods of crop farmers and herders, the innovative scheme aims to foster a culture of saving and micro-insurance - but not all has gone smoothly.

Run by UK-based nonprofit Farm Africa, the project organises farmers into savings groups and links them with micro-finance companies that give them loans to buy cows for extra income.

They then sign up to insurance policies to ensure they can still repay their loans if their cows die.

But some farmers complain such market-driven initiatives leave participants waiting too long for the money to come in.

A year on, after several insemination attempts, Bulacho's cow had still not calved, so had not produced a drop of milk.

With the added cost of keeping the cow, and none of the additional income he was expecting, Bulacho struggled to pay his bills. "I told them to take this cow away from me," he said.

Melese Olte, 32, another farmer in the Arba Minch region, tried three times to get his cow to conceive so she could make milk, but never succeeded. She died a few months later, he said.

The insurance policy he got with the programme guaranteed to pay out on a claim within 72 hours, but it was over five months before he got his money, he said.

In the meantime, he still had to pay down the loan he got to buy his cow in the first place - with interest.


According to Farm Africa, since the project launched in 2015, it has established more than 340 village savings and loans associations, through which households have put away more than $100,000 and farmers have accessed nearly $70,000 in loans.

Dereje Agizi, a project coordinator for aid agency Mercy Corps, one of Farm Africa's partners, said problems like those experienced by Bulacho and Olte were rare - and could be due to "the age of the cow and poor feeding".

"Almost all cows bought from the same source and at the same time have given birth," Agizi said by email.

Hundreds of farmers had taken out insurance, and the five who had so far made claims had been compensated, he added.

Addis Ababa-based Nyala Insurance S.C., which provides the livestock cover, said payouts to a few farmers had been delayed.

That was mainly because of the technology Nyala agents use to record and submit claims while in the field, said Solomon Zegeye, micro-insurance business manager at the company.

"The reality was that (the) sales agents who entered the particulars of insured cattle on the app did not do it properly," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

The company is working to make the software easier to use while providing more training to its agents, he added.

Tsegalem Hailemichael, from the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries in the Arba Minch area, also noted a general lack of knowledge about how to care for cows among farmers, which could make it difficult for some to benefit from such projects.

The farmers should get "good and continuous training" on how to keep their cows healthy and recognise when the animals are ready for insemination, he said.


Despite about 80% of Ethiopia's population earning a living from farming and pastoralism, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, crop and livestock insurance is still a nascent business in the country.

That means new programmes based on insurance are bound to hit snags, said Farm Africa's Negusu Aklilu, who heads the livestock insurance project in Ethiopia.

"The important thing is to take those lessons and improve the service," he said.

One result of the initiative, which ends in June, is that even farmers who are not involved in the project are now approaching insurance firms about covering their animals, according to Zegeye from Nyala Insurance.

Demand has been so high Nyala is expanding its service into areas around Arba Minch, to cover up to 5,000 heads of cattle, he said.

The hope is that the growing interest will motivate micro-finance institutions and insurance companies to do more to arm Ethiopia's farmers with the financial tools they need to adapt to climate change, Zegeye added.

But Aklilu at Farm Africa does not believe that should be left to the private sector.

"The government has to come up with incentives or mechanisms that can encourage the businesses ... to insure the uninsured," he said.

Farmer Bulacho kept his cow in the end. It is due to give birth in a few months' time, and maybe then he will finally get the milk that could help save his livelihood.

"God knows the future. I have nothing to say about what might happen to the cow next," he added.

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