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Mary Nasimiyu’s 2-hectare farming venture is in the sleepy Miluki area of Bungoma County in western Kenya. With her passion for agriculture and focus on crop diversification, Mary, 27, has won the hearts of local youth at a time when most have turned their backs on farming. But her journey has not been easy: Mary contends with ongoing poor yields because her farm is continuously pummeled by the region’s harsh weather conditions, which alternate between prolonged dry spells and flooding.   

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Mary Nasimiyu shows hail damage on her farm near Bungoma in western Kenya.
Georgina Smith
Mary Nasimiyu shows hail damage on her farm near Bungoma in western Kenya.

Interacting with picture-based insurance  

In 2019, a member of the church Mary attends introduced her to a crop insurance scheme known as Picture-Based Insurance (PBI). PBI combines crop insurance coverage with advisory services from agronomists and access to high-quality certified seeds from locally-accredited companies. Developed by the Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise Ltd (ACRE Africa), the project is part of the Cultivate Africa’s Future Fund, a partnership between the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and IDRC.  

Mary’s farming resilience and reliability in paying insurance premiums, ranging from Ksh50 (CAD $0.56/AUD $0.61) to Ksh1,000 (CAD $11.25/AUD $12.25), made her a reliable choice to become a village-based “change agent” or “village champion” for ACRE Africa. In early 2021, Mary recruited 250 farmers to sign up to the ACRE Africa insurance program. However, when COVID-19 and lockdown measures hit, the government-enforced ban on gatherings and movement restrictions meant she could only work with 20 farmers in her immediate area. 

Insurance uptake in Kenya in general is just 2.4%, according to the Central Bank of Kenya’s 2020 Financial Stability Report. According to a report from the Ministry of Agriculture, less than 1% of farmers and pastoralists have purchased insurance. As part of Mary’s role as a change agent, she trains farmers on good agricultural farming practices at least once per week and helps them understand the importance of insurance.   

Insurance premiums are paid by members at the onset of the long and short rains, which is when farmers are planting. In case of extreme weather, this timing ensures that crops are monitored from the very beginning. “One of the things that has convinced farmers to embrace this insurance is the fact that I train them, sometimes at my place, and they can learn my journey, including what one gets by taking up the insurance cover. The idea is to get farmers to embrace it by seeing results of their fellow farmers” she says. 

However, the process has not always been smooth sailing. “Being a champion has been a journey full of mixed fortunes. When we started, it was so tough to convince the farmers of the importance of taking up the insurance. Most of them mistrust insurers because of the perception of claims often being delayed or not honoured at all,” Mary recalls. “To win them over, we likened PBI to the government’s National Health Insurance Scheme, which is popular in this area. We explained that people don’t take medical coverage because they expect to be sick, but because it would come in handy if and when they do get sick. We told them the same applies to their crops.”  

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Mary Nasimiyu on her farm near Bungoma in western Kenya. She is a champion farmer who intercrops maize and beans.
Georgina Smith
Mary Nasimiyu on her farm near Bungoma in western Kenya. She is a champion farmer who intercrops maize and beans.

Reaping the fruits of PBI 

Even though she has not yet had to claim compensation, the scheme has enabled Mary to use certified seeds, and doing so has boosted her seasonal yields from 45 kg to 225 kg. Although she has only insured maize under the PBI scheme, she says the yields she has been getting from this crop, which she sells at local markets each season for Ksh6,000 (CAD $67.94/AUD $73.94), have allowed her to diversify into farming vegetables such as kale, onions and tomatoes. She even established a clothing boutique in 2020.  

Mary has been an inspiration to young people in the area who have avoided farming for its high-risk and low yield returns. “Due to crop diversification and some new ways of farming, for example, using new and improved seeds, I have received a lot of requests for training on good agricultural practices from young people who are keen to join farming. Some of them are now in my network and I am happy with the small revolution we are creating together to get more youth into farming,” she says. She adds that shocks, such as COVID-19 and climate change, stand in the way of farmers, especially younger individuals, from realizing their dreams. “This is why insurance schemes like PBI come in handy; to build the resilience of our farmers and guarantee that they will have something, even when crops fail due to bad weather,” she says. 

Meeting the needs of young farmers 

At the height of the pandemic, when Mary was unable to reach farmers and distribute seeds in-person, she relied on her mobile phone to provide training and recruit new members via SMS, phone calls and WhatsApp. It was easier to have conversations with youth about farm management and seed distribution this way because most have smartphones.  

As uptake of PBI insurance increases, Mary says young farmers are keen to have the scheme introduce more inputs such as fertilizer and crop protection solutions (e.g., pesticides and herbicides) and to increase the range of insurable crops, including horticulture. ACRE is in the process of making these changes.  

The PBI product, which is still being piloted, has so far covered 4,200 farmers across Busia, Bungoma, Embu, Machakos, Makeuni, Meru and Tharaka counties over four seasons.

The project is developed and implemented by a consortium of four organizations; Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), Agriculture and Climate Risk Enterprise Limited (ACRE Africa), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Wageningen University and Research (WUR) among other stakeholders.

Top image: Georgina Smith