Villagers meet to design custom rainfall insurance within the World Food Programme’s R4 Rural Resilience Initiative. Kouthiakoto Ndene village, Senegal 2013. Photo: Helen Greatrex
Helen Greatrex joined the Department of Geography in summer 2019 as an assistant professor of geography and statistics. Greatrex studies how rainfall is measured and used for decision-making—linking research on rainfall hazards, exposure and vulnerability, and impact. She focuses on supporting the design of index-based weather insurance for farmers.
There are billions of small, rain-fed family farms around the world, which together produce over half of the global food supply. For many farmers, the threat and impact of severe weather can mean that it’s hard to invest.
“Imagine you want to take out a loan to purchase high-quality seeds or fertilizer,” Greatrex said. “In a normal year, this could drastically increase your yields and profits. But if a severe drought strikes, you will likely lose your harvest and be unable to repay the loan. It’s often really difficult to take that risk. Furthermore, banks can see rain-fed farms as a risky prospect, and so they can be reluctant to give out the loan in the first place.”
While agricultural insurance is designed to reduce this risk, premiums are expensive and may be out of reach for many farmers.
“This is where index insurance comes in,” Greatrex said. “If drought is the problem, then rather than directly insure farm damages, why not insure the drought instead? Index insurance works by allowing the customer to purchase coverage based on an index that’s closely linked to damages, in this case, low rainfall during a certain window of time.”
Index insurance now covers millions of farmers around the world, especially across Africa, the United States, India, and China, but it is still complicated to find appropriate indices that link weather and farm damages. Much of Greatrex’s recent work has focused on this challenge, answering questions such as: Is drought the number of dry days in June? The total regional rainfall in July? Can a satellite rainfall product be used in places where there are few rain gauges? Does there need to be a single cut off or a sliding scale?
Greatrex works with insurance programs around the world to answer those types of questions, looking at the spatial statistics of rainfall information and linking them to actual damage or human impact.
“This might include core rainfall research on the best weather statistics to use, or social research on how insurance programs affect farming communities,” she said. “My research spans working directly with farmers across Africa on custom product design; with national meteorological agencies on satellite rainfall uncertainty; and with business leaders on how to model uncertainty.”
Another focus of Greatrex’s research is index insurance programs’ potential to exacerbate or alleviate social inequity.
“We often assume that because index insurance is portrayed as a tool to help the poorest farmers, then it must be automatically helpful for everyone in that community,” she said. “There are many insurance programs that have led to poverty reduction, but it’s not always the case. For example, in several countries, women are less likely to buy insurance products, not because they are more risk averse, but because they have less access, or the insurance doesn’t cover relevant crops.”
Greatrex and colleagues are addressing those concerns by developing social equity frameworks for insurance companies and by conducting sociological research with women across Africa about the role of insurance in their farming practices.
Greatrex has found the most successful insurance programs are those that consider insurance within a larger context.
“For example, if a farmer needs insurance because she can’t access seed, then programs bundling drought insurance with seed and credit work very well,” Greatrex said. “Other programs work well because they consider the needs of their customers. For example, the World Food Programme’s R4 Rural Resilience Initiative has been able to scale by linking insurance within a holistic package of loans, credit, and savings, where the products are often tailored to the needs of the poorest farmers.”
Moving beyond index insurance, Greatrex’s research focuses on the broader application of geographical, social, and statistical questions surrounding weather risk management.
For example, she is currently working with the humanitarian sector to understand how weather information can be used to more efficiently allocate disaster funding; and with the Red Cross on flash flood response protocols. She is also linking with other Penn State scientists, modelling how severe weather affects bees and pollinators; plus assessing how satellite rainfall can be used in the fight against infant hydrocephalus.