What crop insurance actually looks like in Africa

Formal crop insurance of the type Kilimo Salama is pioneering remains rare in Africa – some research suggests it will never catch on. But does that mean farmers don’t hedge against bad weather? Hell no.

It’s just that, in a lot of Africa, crop insurance goes by a different name: sorghum.

It’s a Catch-22: When the rains fail and your maize doesn’t come through, you end up eating sorghum. When the rains are good and both your maize and your sorghum patches come through, all the buyers want is the maize, so you end up eating…Sorghum.

Legendarily drought resistant, sorghum (and its close cousin, millet)  is the typical East African farmer’s Plan B. Everyone would prefer to eat maize – Kenyans’ ugali fixation is famous – but maize is finicky. It has to rain enough at the right times of the year and it has to be cool enough at the right time of the night for the harvest to come in. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble.

But the kind of moderate drought that can mess up your maize harvest won’t put a dent on your Sorghum field. So even if you have very little land to begin with, chances are that you’re going to plant a bit of sorghum. You never know, and in bad rain years, that patch of sorghum can be the difference between your family eating and starving.

Sorghum may be Africa’s most planted, least loved grain.

See, maize is easy. Everyone wants maize. Maize value chains are well established, industrial buyers are mature businesses, local people like it. It’s no problem selling maize. But sorghum?

Sorghum is much farther harder to turn into cash. There are a few large-scale buyers – mostly beer brewers – but not that many, and not everywhere, and usually they want sorghum grown using a couple of specific varieties of seed rather than the gnarly saved-from-last-year’s-harvest seed you used. (In the end, mostly it’s large-scale commercial farmers who sell to the breweries, not smallholders.)

It’s a Catch-22: When the rains fail and your maize doesn’t come through, you end up eating sorghum. When the rains are good and both your maize and your sorghum patches come through, all the buyers want is the maize, so you end up eating…Sorghum.

Which is ironic, because by and large people like maize way more than they like sorghum!

Which is why here at the Campaign for Boring Development we get excited every time we hear about a new buyer entering the Sorghum value chain. Because millions of Africa’s poorest farmers are desperate for a way to move the sorghum (/millet) they harvest.

Developing the demand for these kinds of food security crops – because really it’s not just sorghum, it’s cassava and pigeonpeas and cowpeas and a bunch of other crops you’ve never heard of, to – is quintessential Boring Development. There is just no way to build a fundraising pitch around “Help this farmer sell this crop you’ve never heard of to this company that makes beer/noodles.”

But then, chances are you’ve never had to eat sorghum porridge twice a day for six months. It’d be a different world if everyone had to do that, don’t you think?

2 thoughts on “What crop insurance actually looks like in Africa”

  1. This is an interesting article, but a very East-Africa-centric view of things. In Mali, for example, there is a great market for millet, which is in some places preferred over maize. And while sorghum is generally less attractive, there is definitely a (local and regional) market for sorghum as food crop, not just for making beer.

    I’m all for boring development, but I’m also all for acknowledging that “African farmers” is too broad a category for generalizing behavior.

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