Farmers' peace and women's potential

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Jackline Chemtai Kapsukut works as an Actuarial Climate Risk Analyst. She is also one of our Champions for Diversity & Inclusion. We asked our Kenyan colleague for insights into insurance and what’s most needed for gender equity.

Syngenta Foundation: How, very briefly, would you explain what an actuary does?
An actuary uses data to build models for risk management and its pricing. Put another way: We distill data to help people provide insurance.

When, why, and how did you come to the Syngenta Foundation?  
I joined in October 2017, straight after graduating. This was driven by my passion for agriculture and to help transform food systems. I am proud to be part of the team finding solutions for highly vulnerable people: smallholder farmers struggling with the weather and climate change all over the world.

What countries, crops, and risks are you currently concentrating on?  
My focus at the moment is on our insurance program in Sudan. The risks this program covers are drought and excess rainfall in sorghum, groundnut, and sesame. As well as helping scale up the work, I also support our financial education campaigns. These aim to build a strong foundation for credit, savings, and risk transfer through insurance knowledge. We help smallholders and other stakeholders in the agricultural value chain (AVC) understand credit-linked crop agricultural climate risk insurance solutions. In parallel, I also support our Myanmar team with product design and development for farmers growing pulses.

What, for you personally, is the fascination of insurance?  
Insurance is a risk transfer tool. Modern life is full of uncertainties and risks. Being an actuary allows me to use numbers to create ways to shift risk from the shoulders of the weakest people in the AVC: smallholders. Among professionals, we can use lots of complicated terms like “averting adverse eventualities”. But for farmers, the point is that insurance lets them sleep peacefully.  

What are the special challenges of actuarial work on climate risk?
Climate risk is multifaceted. As an actuary, you have to keep so many different things in mind. Handling these data requires a whole range of skills. For example, we need to involve climate scientists, remote sensing experts, and programmers. Handling all these data requires high-end tools and considerable computing power – which are usually expensive!

What danger is there that smallholders who take out insurance feel too safe and are therefore less careful about other aspects of their climate-resilience?  
This can be an issue. In the insurance sector, we call it “moral hazard”. For example, farmers who take out insurance against pests and diseases sometimes neglect agronomic practices that tackle these problems. Personally, however, I see smallholders’ lack of knowledge about insurance as a larger problem. That often leads to misconceptions and mistrust. Many smallholders see insurance as an investment, rather than a risk management tool. So, they expect a payout at the end of the season, regardless of what the weather was like. But whether you face moral hazard or false expectations, the key is education. That’s why our partners and we put so much effort into education and training for farmers.   

What is your advice to young people considering a career in insurance?
Insurance is a wide space! One should be open to explore opportunities, examine trends, and be innovative. Technology “disruption” is a big topic here as well. So the insurance industry also needs more application developers and data scientists. If you wish to qualify as an Actuary, never give up! The journey is long but very interesting. For some people, options such as the Certified Actuarial Analyst qualification may be a good alternative. Whichever route you choose: Failing an exam along the way shouldn’t shake you. It simply shows the profession’s high standards.

What kind of people make the best actuaries?
The best ones are highly innovative, detail-oriented, with great mathematical and statistics acumen and a talent for problem-solving. As an actuary, one also needs good skills in communication, visualization, and imagining new possibilities. And you have to be ready to learn from others!

The Syngenta Foundation recently created a network of Diversity & Inclusion Champions. Why did you volunteer to join?  
My main motivation is my background! I come from a society where gender inequality is still pronounced. In Kenya, men typically have more opportunities than their female counterparts. My vision is a transformed society with no gender bias. I believe that working with the other D&I Champions will enhance my knowledge and exposure to the topic. A diverse and inclusive workforce increases innovation and productivity. We are all our best selves when we are included, and I’d love to see that happening at every workplace. Diversity at work leads to a plethora of benefits – both from an internal and external perspective. For us, this means understanding smallholders’ needs and serving them better.

Kenya’s “Standard” newspaper recently quoted you as saying: “Ending gender inequality is not just the right thing to do, it is the smart thing.” Why is social leveling smart?
For several reasons. Having level ground for all, regardless of gender, creates a great opportunity for social mobility. Social leveling paves the way for a large pool of ideas to flow and for men and women to buy into them across the ‘gender divide’. In many countries today, women are systematically under-represented in decision-making processes that shape their lives and societies. And unlike in insurance, the maths here are really simple: Limiting half the population’s opportunities slows the progress of any society. When women are constrained from reaching their full potential, that potential is lost to society as a whole.

Where does Kenya most need to improve in D&I?
I see three major areas. One is land ownership. Women can’t own or inherit land in most Kenyan communities, including my own! It is time for a change. A second divisive area is politics. There are theoretically good gender rules in place, but they are yet to be properly implemented. Some elective positions are effectively reserved for men. Inclusion matters in politics; we now need to understand what this means in practice. The third field for improvement is the marginalization of certain ethnic groups. Bias against them is visible in resource allocation, for example, as well as social development and job opportunities.

Where does the Syngenta Foundation most need to improve in D&I?  
In my personal view: gender inclusion. Currently, the large majority of our employees and the agri-entrepreneurs are male. Women are just as qualified, across the spectrum. I look forward to a better balance.  

Jackline Chemtai is based in our Nairobi office. In her free time, she is an avid reader and programmer. She also loves a walk in the fresh air and beautiful natural surroundings.  A great believer in the power of mentorship for girls, Jackline is a member of Kecher Africa. This organization’s vision is to inspire the world through mentoring high school students and guiding them towards exciting career paths.