Fighting drought and an uncertain climate

Birhan Teklehaimanot gets a worried look on her face when you ask her about her wheat crop. “The rains are late now compared to last year,” she says. “If we have no wheat production, there may be no income for the family. And our animals might not get enough fodder.”

It’s a concern because Teklehaimanot doesn’t want to repeat what happened four years ago, when the lack of rain reuined her family’s entire wheat crop. They had no income, but luckily received a small insurance payment they used to pay back the money they had borrowed to buy fertilizer.

The family is insured again this year, which is a good thing because Teklehaimanot says rainfall patterns have become erratic in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia, where she lives.

“It’s been like this for three years,” she says, looking at the floor, then up at the ceiling for a moment.

“There was enough rain before then.”

Since 2015, Teklehaimanot has been part of an innovative program Oxfam helped start in Ethiopia called the R4 Initiative. R4 has helped her diversify her farming into vegetables and fruit in addition to grain. She still insures her grain crop, and a village savings and loan program is helping her finance her farming, invest in raising some sheep, and save money for the education of her three sons.

R4 was first known as Horn of Africa Risk Transfer for Adaptation (HARITA) when it was first tested in 2009. It was an innovative, integrated risk management framework that used weather index insurance for smallholder farmers through a multi stakeholder partnership between Ethiopian farmers, Swiss Re, the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) and Nyala Insurance and coordinated by Oxfam. In its first three years of operations, HARITA showed promise and transitioned into the R4 Initiative in 2011-12 and expanded its partnerships to include the World Food Programme with the aim of adapting lessons learnt in Ethiopia to other countries with the addition of risk reserves (savings) to the HARITA framework.

There are now more than 25,000 individuals in Tigray and Amhara buying insurance policies to help them if lack of rain limits their harvest. Many of them are also involved in saving money, borrowing at a modest interest rate to fund their farming and participating in projects such as planting trees and building erosion control walls that help improve soil quality and channel scarce rainfall into the ground for use later. In Amhara the work is implemented by the Organization for Rehabilitation & Development.

The initiative is now operating in Ethiopia and five other countries in Africa, where 87,000 farmers are involved. As the R4 Initiative enters its second decade, we are shifting from management of the day-to-day work as REST and others steer R4 into its next phase. But the objective of the initiative will remain the same: helping farmers like Teklehaimanot reduce their vulnerability to drought and the changing climate—and have the confidence to plant a crop and grow food, knowing that if the unpredictable rainfall lets them down, they can still cope and survive.