Apple Podcasts Google Podcasts Stitcher Spotify

In Kenya, climate change is threatening a way of life for pastoralists. It’s driving families deeper into poverty. When drought hits, men travel for weeks in search of water and greener pastures for their livestock herds. The women and children are left behind with no stable source of food or income. UC Davis agricultural economists are researching the pairing of two intervention programs, including a type of climate insurance policy, to keep these vulnerable populations from falling so deep into poverty that they have no way to recover.

In this episode:

Michael Carter, professor of agricultural and resource economics, and director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience at UC Davis, with research in Kenya funded by USAID.

Tom Lenaruti, Project Coordinator, BOMA Project

Nathan Jenson, economist at the International Livestock Research Institute

Amy Quinton: I’m in northern Kenya and a local driver is taking me to a remote village on one of the worst dirt roads imaginable…pothole ridden and washed out in parts. 

It’s been a few hours since we left the hillside town of Maralal and we aren’t even close to our destination. Getting there means another half mile on foot. 

We pass by goats, sheep, cattle and a camel with a bell around its neck, until we arrive at a small fenced-in area called a boma. It’s made of dried wood and brush with a few small huts inside. Men and women of the Samburu tribe live here. Nonkunta Lekupanae sits under an acacia tree. She wears rings of colorful beads from her neck to her shoulders. I asked her to tell me about her life here. 

Nonkunta Lekupanae: I like it here. We are pastoralists. We can get green grass for our animals and forage for our goats and camels. It’s also bushy here so we can secure ourselves and our herd from cattle rustlers.

Amy Quinton: For centuries, Samburu people have lived the same way, semi-nomadic, traveling with their livestock herds to find green pastures. But climate change is threatening their way of life. Rainfall has become more erratic and droughts more prolonged. Rival tribes sometimes steal their livestock as resources become scarce.

Nonkunta Lekupanae: We usually experience drought. It’s why right now I have very few animals. I had a lot of animals in the past, but the drought killed them all, cows, goats and even donkeys. It has made us poor.

Amy Quinton: So poor, their children go hungry. Pastoralists like the Samburu are some of the most vulnerable people in the world to climate change. In this episode of Unfold, we’ll examine how climate change is punishing the world’s poor and how UC Davis researchers are looking for solutions.

THEME: Climate models all agree that temperatures are going to increase. It’s going to be hotter. It’s going to be drier. Fires are going to burn more frequently. Maybe this is never going to be the way it was again. We need to come up with ways to literally pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. How are we going to work together to solve a challenge like climate change?

Amy Quinton: Coming to you from our closet studios as we shelter in place across the Sacramento region, this is Unfold, a UC Davis podcast that breaks down complicated problems and discusses solutions. This week, we unfold the climate crisis in Kenya. I’m Amy Quinton.

Kat Kerlin: And I’m Kat Kerlin. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, climate change could force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty. 

Amy Quinton: Some of the world’s poorest people will also become climate migrants – forced to move due to crop failure, a shortage of water or rising sea levels. 

Kat Kerlin: Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the areas that will be hardest hit. The Samburu people we just heard from are on the frontlines. Vast stretches of northern Kenya are becoming hotter and drier. 

Amy Quinton: Kat, here’s what I discovered while I was there. Climate patterns, you know, used to be fairly predictable. During dry seasons, when pastoralists like the Samburu may lose animals, they were usually followed by wet seasons, when they can rebuild herds. 

But Michael Carter, one of our agricultural economists here at UC Davis, says all of that is changing. 

Michael Carter: Right now, the seasons are just totally messed up. So in the Northern Kenya regions, we’re seeing much more severe climate swings including more frequent drought events as well as seasonally surprising rainfall patterns. So this makes it really hard for people to sort of know what to do. The sort of traditional way of managing a rainy/dry, rainy/dry kind of time periods, when those weather patterns get disrupted it’s not quite clear what you do. You don’t know what’s going to come next. So, like farmers all over the world or people that depend on the weather all over the world, the pastoralists, are sort of figuring out, how do we do this?

Amy Quinton: Michael knows a lot about risk. He says it’s a huge factor in what makes and keeps rural agricultural people in the developing world poor.

Kat Kerlin: And climate change is making their lives riskier. What was it like when you visited northern Kenya?

Amy Quinton: I went during the dry season, only it was raining, pouring in fact in some areas. And from what I understand it rained for weeks after I left. Imagine if it were to rain here in the Central Valley in July or August. That’s what it was like.

Kat Kerlin: And this is a region in Africa that’s been hit hard by drought too? 

Amy Quinton: Right, Northern Kenya actually the entire horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and Somalia, they’ve been hit by four severe droughts in the last two decades. 

Kat Kerlin: Michael said risk keeps people poor. This is an area that’s already poor. 

Amy Quinton: Northern Kenya is one of the poorest regions in the country.

Michael Carter: When we first started our work in there it was estimated at that time that something like 40 percent of the population was living on under 50 cents a day, which is about one-fourth the level of what’s considered being really poor in the global economy - that’s typically more like two dollars per person per day and these people, or a large fraction of the population was living on less than that.

Amy Quinton: I visited Samburu County where about 58 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day. When drought hits this region, it often leads to a food crisis. Last year about 3 million people in northern Kenya were food insecure, when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or even if they’re going to have enough to eat. 

Michael Carter: Which means it’s hard for children to grow up well nourished. It’s hard for them, if they have an opportunity to go to school, it’s hard for them to learn. It’s hard for families to pay for their children to go to school. So, it’s sort of a recurring cycle of poor parents and poor children who repeat that.

Kat Kerlin: So Michael then, since he’s an economist, must be studying the best way to prevent this cycle of poverty under a changing climate. 

Amy Quinton: Right, and we’ll unfold his involvement in a bit. But first, we’re going to go back to Kenya, to learn why women and children are often the ones who end up suffering the most. And we’re going hear about the Boma Project, that’s a nonprofit that Michael is working with, that is trying to help. 

Nonkunta Lekupanae, the Samburu woman we met earlier, lives in one of the most arid parts of Northern Kenya. Right now, the grass is green from recent rains, but it’s short, the soil is sandy and it’s easy to see that it wouldn’t take many dry days for this to look more like a desert. 

Nonkunta Lekupanae: We have water now because the place is still green. But when it is dry, we have to go almost four kilometers to get water for our children and the animals. 

Amy Quinton: Drought is one of the reasons some pastoralists here own camels. They still produce milk when they’re thirsty. Nonkunta had a camel until a lion killed it. She says drought here changes everything. 

Nonkunta Lekupanae: The drought is hard here. It depresses us. The animals go to green pastures, but we struggle here at home.

Amy Quinton: Raising livestock is the Samburu’s main source of income. It’s too arid to grow crops.  But it’s a patriarchal culture. Only the men travel with the herds. Women are left behind in the village with little or no way to earn income or feed their children. Most like Nonkunta turn to menial labor or sell what little they have.

Nonkunta Lekupanae: We have to collect aloe vera plants or sell our goats. We have to go to the market with our donkey to get food. We do this every day so we can feed our children.

Amy Quinton: Nonkunta has seven children to feed. She says it costs a third of what she makes collecting and selling aloe vera to buy one package of maize flour. 

Amy Quinton: In a forest conservation area not quite as far north as where Nonkunta lives, Fatumo Latito has invited me inside her small hut, called an enkaji in the Samburu language. It’s made from a mixture of cow dung and mud, with poles made from tree branches. It’s pouring rain outside, which is unusual for this time of year, but she remembers the last drought well. 

Fatumo Latito: Everyone lost livestock. If your herd was big, then you lost maybe half of them. If you only had a little, then you lost everything. I had four cows and I lost them all.

Amy Quinton: Without cows or goats to milk, she couldn’t feed her 8 children. She fetched water and firewood for a little money, but everyone was struggling. 

Fatumo Letito:  I thought ‘I need to have a farm to support my family.’ So, we moved to a place where food would grow and I could farm. But it didn’t work out. My husband and other men convinced me to come back.

Amy Quinton: In Samburu culture, men make most of the decisions. It’s also common for men to have more than one wife. Income often isn’t distributed equally among them.  

That can leave Samburu women and children in a desperate situation, says Tom Lenaruti, a field coordinator for a non-profit non-governmental organization called the Boma Project. 

Tom Lenaruti: It’s a cultural aspect that looks down upon women seeing them as people who are not supposed to even own property, people who don’t make decisions for the families. As an organization, we’ve seen that there is a need for empowerment of women to support and build up family or household income levels.

Amy Quinton: The Boma Project offers women cash assistance, mentoring and training to set up a small business. The businesses are run by three women instead of one, to prevent a husband from taking control.  They’re small enterprises, either buying and selling livestock or setting up kiosks to sell sugar, tea or other items. Tom says it’s a huge undertaking.

Tom Lenaruti: Formerly these are people who are totally illiterate, people who are not educated. So they are not exposed, so they have no idea what’s happening. We train them first to understand what are businesses? Because they don’t even know. The only see men sometimes engaged in business.

Amy Quinton: Let’s just imagine this task for a moment. Samburu women have very little money or capital, no i.d., no bank account, no notion of what type of business to even run or how to save money and keep records. The Boma Project teaches all of this, down to even providing a safe box to save money.

And it has dramatically changed their lives.

On top of a lush green hillside, Nkaspan Lentipo sits with her business partners. 

For the past year and a half, her business group has been trading livestock. Her wealth, which is measured by how many animals she has, has expanded. 

Nkaspan Lentipo: Look at me. Look at my health. Our kids go to school. I can buy medicine for my kids, my husband and even the livestock if they are sick. I can buy clothes for myself, my kids and my husband. Now I have 20 goats and seven cows.

Amy Quinton: She says before the Boma Project helped her out, she struggled to feed her eight children. 

Nkaspan Lentipo: I couldn’t sleep. The younger kids were crying because they went to bed hungry. It would force me to go and beg food from another neighbor. Sometimes I’d be given food, sometimes I wouldn’t. 

Amy Quinton: It’s still not easy. The market to sell their animals is three to four hours on foot. And it’s unclear what would happen if another bad drought were to hit. Nkaspan is confident she and her business partners will manage.

Nkaspan Lentipo: First, we know it’s coming. Since there are three of us, we are going to split our duties. Some of us will stay and sell the healthier animals and save the money. The rest will go to green pastures.

Amy Quinton: Nkaspan says each of them has 9,000 shillings, which is enough money to last them 8 months. 

Kat Kerlin: Amy, it’s clear from what we’ve heard that women and children in these pastoral communities are really living on the edge. But the Boma Project sounds really successful, at least from the woman you talked with. 

Amy Quinton: I spoke to several who told me that it’s changed their lives, that they’ve saved and they’ve been able to send their kids to school, which is a really big deal. And Michael Carter says at least one study has pointed to it raising living standards by 20 to 30 percent.  But the question remains: is it enough? 

Michael Carter: So that’s remarkable given that these people live with these cycles of good years and bad years and drought years, how persistent are these kinds of effects? And so It was within this context that we said, well, we already know the traditional lifestyle, economic activity of families can get wiped out by droughts, what about the assets and the businesses that these women build?

Kat Kerlin: Is he suggesting that these women could lose their business and everything they’ve been saving, even those who have plans to weather the next drought?

Amy Quinton: We still really don’t know what will happen in a prolonged drought, the kind that can come with a changing climate. There was a drought eight years ago and some of the women in the Boma program lost their businesses. And this is where Michael’s research comes into the picture. He’s looking at long-term strategies to help prevent these women from losing everything.

Michael Carter: We began to operate with the Boma Project, that operates these programs, and said it would make a lot of sense to try to complement what you do with what we do, which is namely insurance, so that when those drought events come along, women can actually preserve and hang onto the assets that they’ve worked so hard to build up.

Amy Quinton: He says insurance, but he’s examining a specific kind of insurance called index-based livestock insurance.

Kat Kerlin: Okay, so what is that?

Amy Quinton:  Well in a nutshell, it’s a way to provide pastoralists insurance payouts when there is a drought. So instead of providing payouts based on actual livestock losses, they’ll get payouts based on an external indicator or what they call an “index.” In this case, the index is forage, or the amount of grass or vegetation that’s growing.

Kat Kerlin: Is this like drought insurance?

Amy Quinton: Well drought insurance usually provides payouts to farmers based on rainfall, so it is an index. But Michael says Kenya doesn’t have the network of rain gauges we have here in the States. So, instead, index-based livestock insurance is using satellite data. 

Michael Carter: Different agencies had been using satellite readings to estimate plant growth basically as part of what’s called a famine early warning system. And we said well, if you can use it to say something about whether famines are coming or not based on basically the vegetative growth as seen by satellites, that same information in principle might be able to tell us whether there’s enough crops or forage for animals on the ground to eat.

Kat Kerlin: So, if the satellites show that there’s a lot of green pasture, women wouldn’t get payouts, but if it shows very little forage for animals, they would get payouts, right?

Amy Quinton: Right. I talked with Nathan Jensen with the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, and he’s working on this project with Michael. He says index-based livestock insurance also eliminates that extra step of having to validate losses, which of course something insurance companies do.

Nathan Jenson: There’s no reason to go out and identify whose animals are whose or count if animals have died or talk about expenditures. And so this means you can just say, ‘everybody who has a policy gets a payout,’ and it’s based on how much they purchased.

Kat Kerlin: Michael then is examining whether this index-based livestock insurance that he researches — combined with the Boma Project — will keep women from falling deeper into poverty. 

Amy Quinton: So deep that they have no way to recover. And I went to see how all of this is working on the ground.

A team of surveyors is interviewing Samburu women about how the Boma program and Index Based Livestock Insurance is working for them.

The surveyors assess their economic well-being and their family’s health.  The data they collect will be brought back to UC Davis and the International Livestock Research Institute. 

One of the surveyors holds a tape measure around a little boy’s arm. If the measurement is too small, he’s likely not getting enough food. The boy, about two years old, holds onto his mother, who is a participant in the Boma program.  

While the boy looks healthy, Nathan Jensen with the International Livestock Research Institute, has seen malnourished children far too many times. That’s why he’s hoping these interventions will prevent these women from falling so deep into poverty that they can’t feed their children. 

Nathan Jenson: We hope that when households face shocks, which they inevitably do, that they have some sort of mechanism to sort of absorb the shock. It’s difficult, but then you can build yourself back up.

Amy Quinton: The difficulties in providing these programs to help Samburu families are profound. Nathan says index-based livestock insurance is a tough concept to understand. 

Nathan Jenson: It’s definitely one of the biggest chores. To buy insurance if you’re going to be an informed consumer, you really have to understand, at least sort of grasp the idea of probabilities and it’s hard to do that without the concept of numbers and seasons and years in a way that not everybody will have, especially if they’re innumerate for example, if they don’t have a written calendar. So you have to start at the very beginning and talk about how many droughts do people face, how frequently.

Amy Quinton: Index-based livestock insurance has been offered commercially in Kenya for years and it has been successful. Part of the challenge though is convincing these women they will get paid if a drought were to occur. Nathan says for this research, women are given an incentive – discount coupons that partially subsidize the price. 

Fatumo Letito, a Boma participant who we met earlier, has bought this insurance in the past.  

Fatumo Letito: The first year I bought insurance and I was told one day the drought will come and you will get paid. The next year, I experienced drought but didn’t buy insurance, so I wasn’t paid.

Amy Quinton: She laughs about her bad luck now – but it speaks to the difficulty of getting the program off the ground for these women. Fatumo, like many of the Samburu women, lives in such a remote area that insurance agents can’t get to her. 

Fatumo Letito: The agent is not close by, he’s in a town that’s 80 kilometers from here. We were told submit our coupon to the agent, but the agent never came by.

Amy Quinton: In a boma nearby, Lomelo Lesillo also participates in both intervention programs. She says she previously struggled to feed her five children after her husband died in a violent conflict with another tribe over water and grazing lands. She resorted to making charcoal, which is hard manual labor that makes little money.

Lomelo Lesillo: We’d carry bags of charcoal on our heads. It’s not an easy thing to do and doing it constantly, you sometimes contemplate if life is worth living.

Amy Quinton: Lomelo moved to this forest conservation area in hopes of a better life.  She and two other women sell maize flour, sugar and tea from a kiosk as part of the Boma program. She says in some ways, it has turned her life around.  

Lomelo Lesillo: There are two things I am proud of, one is I was able to buy livestock for my son, which allows him to marry. I also have a child that is now in secondary school.

Amy Quinton: Lomelo has managed to save money, but now she has another worry. The Kenyan government is forcing her to move back to an area bordering a rival tribe, where herders sometimes steal livestock. It can escalate into violence and death. Lomelo does not want to go back.

Lomelo Lesillo: It would be easier to fight the government then to go back there. 

Amy Quinton: And while her forced relocation might seem unrelated to her poverty, both have the same root cause – a climate that’s become increasingly unpredictable. Without enough green pasture for animals, people fight, steal livestock or move to an area where the only forage that remains is a forest that the government wants to protect to provide clean drinking water.

So one question remains - will the Boma Project and insurance change things? Right now, Lomelo has stopped her business and is banking every shilling because her future is just too uncertain. 

Kat Kerlin: So Amy won’t we have to wait until a drought hits to find out whether pairing these two intervention programs really work? 

Amy Quinton: Well that’s why it’s a five-year project. It’s also been a year of heavy rains, so some of the women I spoke with hadn’t received insurance payouts. 

Kat Kerlin: But you mentioned that index-based livestock insurance has been offered commercially in Kenya for years. Has it been successful?

Amy Quinton: Well, for the last 10 years, the government has paid out about $10 million to those who’ve bought policies and they’ve insured more than half a million animals. 

Michael Carter’s research also tested index insurance theoretically to see how effective it would be as a safety net for poor people under a changing climate.

Michael Carter: We put all that into this model for northern Kenya and we find that actually for some fairly draconian climate change scenarios, actually having an insurance element in the government’s program set becomes more and more important.

Kat Kerlin: That seems to be sort of common sense to have a safety net like that. It has to be less expensive for governments than waiting until there is a crisis and sending food aid to keep people from starving. 

Amy Quinton: That’s exactly what Michael’s research found.  But he also found that insurance has a sort of tipping point. 

Michael Carter: Insurance can help up to a point. But at some point, it sort of blows up. And even that doesn’t work because these areas simply are no longer economically viable simply because the risks there are too great and nobody can really make a go of it anymore. 

Kat Kerlin: So in other words, an insurance system can absorb only so many shocks before it just doesn’t work anymore.

Amy Quinton: Yeah, it’s true in Northern Kenya and it could hold true here as well if you look at how climate change is changing the number and severity of wildfires here in California. This is something Michael also mentioned.

Michael Carter: I happen to own a house in Sonoma County. So I just had my homeowner’s insurance double in cost, right, because the insurance companies have decided that with climate change and everything else, wildfire chances are much greater than they used to be.

Amy Quinton: Interestingly, rates for Kenya’s index-based livestock insurance are also going up by about 18 percent. Nathan Jensen who I spoke with at the International Livestock Research Institute says the implication is that the previous series of droughts required them to make many more payouts. And they expect more in the future. 

Kat Kerlin: So Amy you visited Kenya in January, since then we’ve had a pandemic and it’s affected Kenya as well, although not as much as it has in the United States. Has it changed anything for these Samburu women that are part of Michael’s research?

Amy Quinton: Unfortunately, it has. At first, COVID-19 shut down many of the livestock trading markets, which left women unable to sell or trade livestock. And people were cash poor, so not buying items at kiosks that the women had set up to sell. 

Kat Kerlin: Has this meant that the women have gone out of business?

Amy Quinton: Well, Michael expanded some of his research in Kenya to find out exactly how Samburu families are coping during the pandemic. And the news is not good. Since March, 80 percent of the women say their business assets have shrunk. 60 percent are selling fewer animals. 

But perhaps even worse, food prices have soared in Kenya as a result of COVID -up 33 percent for maize flour, which is one of their food staples. 

Kat Kerlin: So the women are selling fewer animals and getting less money for what they sell? 

Amy Quiton: Right.

Kat Kerlin: So how are families coping with the situation?

Amy Quinton: Well, in some families, the parents are skipping meals so their children can eat. Some families are skipping 1 meal or 2 meals or even going an entire day without food.  

In fact, the number of families who went a whole day without eating jumped from 33 percent in February when the pandemic started to 65 percent now.

Kat Kerlin: Wow. So in essence, COVID-19 has had the same effect as a drought would for women in the Boma Project.

Amy Quinton: For some of them, yes. And unfortunately, insurance doesn’t kick in for COVID. The one saving grace is that it at least it’s been raining, which has left their animals with enough food to eat.

Kat Kerlin: You know Amy, I wish we could end this episode and this season on a happier note. But climate change isn’t really a happy subject. And in a lot of ways, this really brings us back to the beginning of the season when we talked about how climate change, pandemics and so many world issues overlap.

Amy Quinton: And that’s exactly why we keep searching for solutions.

Kat Kerlin: You can find out more about Michael Carter’s research and check out all of our experts from Unfold episodes at our website at 

Amy Quinton: And this wraps up Season 2 of Unfold. We hope you’ve enjoyed it. You can leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Kat Kerlin: We’d like to thank all of those who have helped us out this season, including the Podcast Governing Board. Editorial guidance came from Dana Topousis and Melissa Blouin. Thanks to John Mounier and Alysha Beck for Unfold’s video trailer.

Amy Quinton: Thanks to Jasmin Francis-Bush and her team for marketing. Russ Thebaud and the design team for Unfold’s cool graphic this season. We’d like to thank Tristan Peery and the web team for our Unfold webpage and Sallie Poggi and her team for handling all of Unfold’s social media this season.  And finally, a very special thanks to producer Cody Drabble. I’m Amy Quinton.

Kat Kerlin: And I’m Kat Kerlin. Thanks for listening. 

Credits: Unfold is a production of UC Davis. It’s produced by Cody Drabble. Original music for Unfold comes from UC Davis alumnus Damien Verrett and Curtis Jerome Haynes. Samburu translation help for this episode came from Justice Leorto, Watson Lepariyo and Tom Lenaruti. Voices of the Samburu women were spoken by UC Davis student Sophie Brubaker.