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Farm aid from space

Satellite data of climate activity enable remote herders to obtain drought insurance.

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A Kenyan Masai farmer stands next to his three cows exhausted by lack of nutrition near Kajiado, south of Nairobi. A NOAA environmental satellite was launched in February (below). Its images will be used in an index that helps determine payouts for climate insurance.

Antony Njuguana/Reuters/File

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Dusty northern Kenya doesn't look like a laboratory, but across its dry plains, cattle herders are pioneering a new way to fend off poverty and teaming up with unlikely partners – insurance agents.

The two groups have been brought together by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), headquartered in Kenya's capital, Nairobi. A few years ago, scientists at ILRI wondered if a new innovation, called weather-indexed insurance, might help impoverished cattle farmers survive the loss of their cows during times of drought.

Weather-indexed insurance has been around for about six years. Like all insurance, the idea is to mitigate risk. Think of homeowner's insurance: A homeowner pays premiums so that, if a pipe bursts, the insurance company will reimburse her – after they've verified the damage, of course.

For the cattle, camel, and goat herders in Marsabit, a dry part of Kenya that shares a border with Ethiopia, animals are assets. Their sale can bring the income a family needs to survive, and a big herd, like a big house, is a store of wealth that can be useful collateral for credit, which analysts often say is key to pulling people out of poverty. At minimum, losing a cow is a devastating financial blow.

That's the kind of risk that insurance can defray, but insurance agents aren't going to travel to Marsabit to verify cattle deaths.

"We really wouldn't have even begun … a traditional [insurance] process. It was very clear for us at the onset that it wouldn't work," says Andrew Mude, chief scientist with ILRI.

Enter weather-indexed insurance, which changes the way the damage is verified for everything from cattle to crops.

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