March 21, 2019 | By Annah Latané

Guest Commentary - Managing Risk and Building Resilience in Senegal

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of  the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on today on March 21.

By Annah Latané, RTI International

Aerial view of the village in Kolda, Senegal, that is home to members of the Kissal Patim farmer group, which partners with the Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay program. Credit: Xaume Olleros/RTI International.

Imagine this for a moment: You go to work every day for a whole year. And you work really hard, giving it your all, and making all the right decisions.

Now, imagine that at the end of the year, your computer, your phone, or whatever tools are critical for you to do your job, completely fail, through no fault of your own.  With it, all the work you’ve done during the whole year is gone; you can’t get paid.

As unfair as it sounds, this is what life is like for many smallholder farmers around the world, including many in southern Senegal who I’ve come to know through a USAID-funded project called Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay, implemented by RTI International. If rainfall on their farms is insufficient, erratic, or excessive, farmers risk losing their investments in quality production inputs, or even worse, they risk defaulting on the loans they take to purchase their inputs, reducing their ability to access credit in future seasons. To reduce this risk, we work with a national insurance company and institutional reinsurers to design affordable rain-index insurance plans tailored for farmers, sold by financial institutions and accessed through producer networks.

In support of the effort, Senegal’s National Agency for Civil Aviation and Meteorology (ANACIM) has installed 88 solar-powered, automated rain gauges throughout the southern zone, which allows insurers like Senegal’s National Agriculture Insurance Company (CNAAS) to quickly access rainfall data and accurately determine when farmers may be at risk of failed production, and to then compute rain-index insurance payouts.

Equipped with this risk mitigation tool, smallholder farmers are more likely to invest in quality inputs that yield more and produce better-quality products demanded by buyers. More than 10,500 producers subscribed to agricultural rain-index insurance in 2018, up from 3,087 in 2015 when the Naatal Mbay project began, representing a 240 percent increase.

We recently visited with the Kissal Patim farmer cooperative in Kolda, Senegal, to see how the rain gauges, together with insurance, are affecting their lives.

Mamadou Diao is the leader of the Kissal Patim farmer group in Kolda. The 50-year-old father of 11 is well respected among the farming community; he is youthful despite many years of farming in a rural area. His daily activities help him stay young and capable, he tells us.

“During the rainy season, we go to the fields at 8:00am and we come back home at 5:00pm to rest and eat,” he says. “And the next day we do the same thing again.”

In the backyard of his house, one of the few buildings made of bricks in his village, Diao shows us the village’s manual rain gauge, which were set up by Feed the Future alongside the automated gauges. “Rain gauges have been a very big contribution for the community because they allow us to know the amount of rain that has fallen in the village,” he explains. “Before, people didn’t know when to plant,” sometimes waiting until even the fourth rain [when the soil has too much moisture] to plant their very valuable seeds. “But now…as soon as the first good rain falls, I tell the village to plant. This has been the main difference; now we know when we have to plant.”

Mamadou Diao, leader of the Kissal Patim farmer group in Kolda, shows off the automated rain gauge that has helped his village improve its farming and build self-reliance. Credit: Xaume Olleros/RTI International.

The introduction of the insurance has also changed lives in this small community. “It is very important for us to be insured,” Diao says. “Because even if we have a bad year, we still have to pay the bank for our loans. Now we are safe, as we will be reimbursed for any losses.”

Under a heavy sun, 40-year old mother of six Aisatou Baldé does the washing and looks after her children. Her daily routine is always the same: “I wake up in the morning and make breakfast, clean, and do the washing. I make lunch and if I have a bit of time, I go to the field to work,” she tells us. “Every day I do that.”

Aisatou Baldé, a member of the Kissal Patim farmer group, says she now feels safe compared to when she began farming 12 years ago, thanks to a Feed the Future-supported automated rain gauge and the insurance it helps facilitate. Credit: Xaume Olleros/RTI International.

Baldé says that after 12 years working in the field planting rice, maize, peanuts, and cotton, she now feels safe compared to when she began, thanks to a Feed the Future-supported automated rain gauge and the insurance it helps facilitate.

“[The rain gauge] was an instrument that I didn’t know before,” she says. “We have been taught something we didn’t understand before; it has been a godsend for us because now we know that with 20 millimeters of rain, we can plant.”

She says that her production has improved since the introduction of the new technology, aided by better climate information.

Like many smallholder farmers, Baldé takes out loans for critical inputs at the beginning of the season. After a recent bad season, the insurance scheme facilitated by Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay helped compensate her for the cost of those inputs. When other farmers saw the increased financial security the insurance brought, the number of subscribers in her area tripled.

“It is very important for me to be able to pay back my loan even if I have a bad year,” she says. “With part of the compensation I pay back the bank, with the other I can buy a goat and sell it when school begins so I can buy books and clothes for my children.”

With increased financial security has come increased self-reliance. “With the insurance, I don’t depend on others to improve my farming.”

Souboune Mballo, 45, is the mother of five children. Everywhere she goes, she’s accompanied by the youngest. “She follows me everywhere,” Mballo laughs.

Mballo has been producing rice and peanuts on one hectare of land for over 18 years. She needs money most when school begins to buy books and clothing for her children – but this is also just before the harvest traditionally begins. Therefore, she has to sell a goat to obtain the money for school-related expenses.

“During the rainy season, after making breakfast for the children, I go to the field until the evening,” she tells us. “During the dry season I sell tea, sweets, and potatoes.”

Mballo says that the rain gauges have improved her life. After learning how much rain is required to plant, she now sends her son, who reads and writes, to see how many millimeters of rain have fallen in the gauge. “Before, we didn’t have this type of information, but [Feed the Future partners] taught us, and they are very helpful,” she says. “Other new technologies can also warn us about droughts and floods, and keep our family safe from heavy winds.”

Souboune Mballo, a farmer in southern Senegal, says that the rain gauges and insurance have improved her life. “Now I only depend on myself.” Credit: Xaume Olleros/RTI International.

The insurance has also helped decrease Mballo’s dependence on the bank. She can keep any compensation money she’s owed after a bad season, which enables her to plant on time every year.

“Each time we have had a payout, I found it to be fair,” she says. “I prefer to have a good year, but if that’s not the case, this allows us to keep going.” She adds that she plans to keep subscribing to the insurance mechanism, because she believes it’s important.

“Now I only depend on myself,” she says.

RTI would like to thank Xaume Olleros for his contributions to this story.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.