The rise of agricultural index-based insurance in Africa


Index based agricultural insurance is gaining momentum across Africa as insurers and reinsurers tap into the large and diverse agricultural sector across the continent. Agriculture comprises a significant proportion of the economies of many East and West African countries, making up 32% of Kenya’s GDP, 21% of Nigeria’s GDP and 25% of Tanzania’s GDP. When crops fail and when yields are reduced it is not just the local farmer, but the economic well-being of the whole country that is adversely affected. Index based agricultural insurance offers a solution, but the idiosyncrasies and challenges of these products are little known outside of the micro-insurance market. 

Index based insurance differs from many insurance policies in that payment is triggered by an external indicator. In the context of the agricultural industry, this index can track heat, rainfall or any other environmental factor affecting crops. On the occurrence of a particular defined event, a payment is made to all policy holders within a specified class, area or group. In contrast to more common forms of insurance policies, the payment is not assessed on an individual basis.

The WINnERS index based insurance scheme was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year with the aim to provide 50,000 farmers in Tanzania with insurance cover and thereafter expand across sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Payments under the scheme’s insurance policies are met by way of investment capital, rather than the reinsurance market and the product is predominantly targeted at local, small scale farmers. Policies such as these present a challenge for the industry in ensuring its policies are affordable and easily available. As a new generation of commercially-driven farmers emerges, with greater access to technology and the internet, innovative new products with novel features such as agreements and payments being made via hand held devices may become more attractive. In April this year, the Swedish start-up insurer BIMA raised $38.4 million to expand its micro-insurance products based on a mobile phone credit business model across emerging markets, including Africa. Partnerships between telecoms and insurance providers, such as the Safaricom/Changhamka partnership in Kenya, allow for high market penetration. In fact, telecoms providers are beginning to offer such insurance policies as standard add-ons to their mobile phone plans. Easier access to the market, greater publicity and the low overheads of providing insurance electronically allow smaller enterprises to access the market while providing established insurers opportunities to boost revenues through new customers and markets. While agricultural policies are predominantly a micro-insurance product targeting the individual, there are also opportunities to access additional related consumers, including lenders granting loans to the agricultural industry, government agencies providing subsidies and other parties across the production chain.

Index based policies are not without their risks. Payments are made only occasionally but on a large scale and triggers such as heatwaves, droughts and floods are difficult to predict more than a few days in advance. This poses a challenge to risk assessors and policy drafters to strike the right balance between covering profitability and ensuring policies are attractive; the external trigger must be considered carefully. While exceptionally heavy rains or heatwaves can be analysed with relative ease by reference to averages, it is far more difficult to assess the impact of a slow-onset drought on crops. At what point is the payment triggered? Will this arrive all too late for the local farmer? As the climate varies month on month and across the continent, triggers would in turn need to vary throughout the year and across regions. These and other factors, such as dealing with electronic signatures and adequately knowing the identity and nature of the insured, are among the challenges to index based insurance and other innovative micro-insurance policies.

Given the significance of the agricultural industry to many African countries and the detrimental impact of crop devastation on both individuals and economies, there is huge potential for the industry to meet the need for index based insurance products across the region. Policies need to be both sufficiently attractive and affordable to the local farmer to generate interest in this micro-insurance market, and sufficiently profitable to make such wide-scale policies commercially viable to insurers.

Co-authored by Emma Brendling, trainee solicitor.