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African droughts: Could insurance schemes help out?

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Providers of insurance for governments and farmers in the region have taken that message on board. As well as providing lifesaving payouts when rains are forecast to fail, the initiatives can also offer farmers the security to invest to boost yields by covering inputs, like seeds and fertilizer. For rain-reliant crop growers, the safety net provided by selling surpluses is the only long-term defense against erratic weather. It's an idea that has possible applications not just in the Horn of Africa, but across much of the continent. 

Desta is one of 13,000 farmers in Tigray region who was involved last year in a three-year-old pilot project run by Oxfam America and Ethiopian charity the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) called Horn of Africa Risk Transfer for Adaptation.

While Tigray's chasms and rocky outcrops create a spectacular landscape, it is difficult to farm. The region suffered severely in the 1983-85 famine and around 85 percent of its 4.3 million people rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihoods, according to REST's insurance coordinator Menegesha Gebremichael.

Like many others, Desta did not have the cash to pay for his $23 insurance premium, which covers up to $92 of inputs, so instead he paid in labor - in his case, 40 days of composting. Those paying in kind are part of the donor-funded Productive Safety Net Program, an innovative scheme in itself that offers cash or food to almost 8 million struggling Ethiopians, often in return for work on small public works like roads and ditches.

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