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Ground-truthing With Yohana Tesfamariam Tekeste

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Columbia Climate School, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

Yohana Tesfamariam Tekeste headshot
Yohana Tesfamariam Tekeste is a staff associate at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, where she helps farmers reduce their vulnerability to climate change.

When asked about her fieldwork with farmers in East and Southern Africa, Yohana Tesfamariam Tekeste describes it as “taking an oath.” She is committed to generating impacts that not only reflect but are fundamentally defined by the farmers’ needs in the face of the climate crisis.

Originally from Eritrea, Tesfamariam Tekeste started her career in biotechnology, researching and producing diagnostic tests for malaria and cholera. That work led her to the Columbia Climate School’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) in 2015, where she used information on climate variability to create early warning systems for the spread of infectious diseases.

Tesfamariam Tekeste has since worked across a number of departments at IRI and is now a member of the financial instruments team, supporting the technological development of various informative tools for agricultural stakeholders such as weather-based index insurance.

Weather-based index insurance is a relatively new but increasingly popular approach to reducing the climate risk exposure of small-scale farmers. Compared to traditional insurance, which pays farmers according to their verifiable losses, weather-based index insurance pays insured farmers based on the satellite data of factors like rainfall.

Today, the majority of Tesfamariam Tekeste’s work on index insurance is concentrated in Zambia and Mozambique. She is also leading forecast-based financing projects in Lesotho and Djibouti, amongst other research topics.

For International Women’s Day, we reached out to Tesfamariam Tekeste to hear more about her approach to developing financial instruments and mitigating climate vulnerability in the Global South.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What kinds of problems are you trying to solve for by providing index insurance and other financial products? 

Generally speaking, with things like index insurance or forecast-based financing tools, we’re contributing to temporary micro-solutions by providing adequate climate information to vulnerable communities to make informed decisions. Providing index insurance to farmers, for example, promotes certain smallholder farmers to take risks such as buying fertilizer or drought-resistant seeds, so they’re more likely to have a better outcome for their upcoming season. Then, if an extreme drought or excess rainy season does occur, they have a safety net to minimize their economic hardship. But index insurance is not by any means the solution. It is just part of the many mitigation approaches that we need to deploy to solve the entirety of the problem of climate vulnerability.

How do you approach the design of forecast-based financing tools?

“We have to get out of our preaching mode and actually start to listen. These communities were resilient before our ‘intervention,’ and they understand their territories better than we do.”

The exciting part of forecast-based financing is that we’re packaging climate information and climate data in a way that decision-makers can use to inform their actions. With both index insurance and forecast-based financing projects, centering the voices of the vulnerable communities is integral to how we design and develop our tools. We can’t say, “Here’s an amazing tool that you can deploy. We’ve done our job, thank you so much,” and then leave. We need to make sure there is some form of co-production, co-generation, and reconciliation process with satellite data and this is done by asking farmers about the worst years they have faced and incorporating it in the design — or in the case of forecast-based financing projects, working with decision-makers to integrate all necessary information to make decisions. In these projects, we also have to consider the user interface designs that our partners would be most comfortable using, and whether the consent of farmers is coming from a place of information, knowledge, and education. My job is not to be the major spokesperson for the farmers but to make sure that they are the spokespeople for themselves, and ensure their voices are centered when embarking on such projects.

What have you learned through working alongside these local partners and community members?

That our approach needs to be a lot more open-ended. We have so many preconceived notions of what decision-making and project or programs should look like, which is a very Eurocentric ideology. Climate scientists have an urge to explain how to use the data, and communicate information without gatekeeping, but as institutions, we need to understand that we’re more on the learning side of things than we are on the teaching side. And as we learn more about our partners’ needs, we have to get out of our preaching mode and actually start to listen. These communities were resilient before our “intervention,” and they understand their territories better than we do.

people at a community meeting outdoors
Photo courtesy of Yohana Tesfamariam Tekeste

Are there particular aspects of your work that you find yourself grappling with right now?

The main problem that I have in my field right now is that not enough people are asking why these communities are vulnerable in the first place. Why don’t they have access to the resources and infrastructure necessary to be resilient in 2022? A lot of people think, when an insurance project is expanding, “Oh, this is a great opportunity.” But, really, we are applying “band-aids” to mitigate the symptoms of what is really happening. Working with farmers has highlighted the extent of the climate crisis for me more than anything else. And at some point, we need to realize that the majority of the Global South is vulnerable right now, not tomorrow, all due to the actions — or inactions — of the people who are reaping the benefits of others’ vulnerability.

How has that first-hand awareness of climate vulnerability influenced your approach as a practitioner?

I’m from Eritrea, so being an African woman from a country that also has communities of farmers, I not only understand [climate vulnerability] from my upbringing, but now I also see the process from a privileged point of view. I have realized that on the side of the western researchers and practitioners, there is an inherent savior complex in academia that only centers our own privilege and takes away from the communities we are there to serve. My first response is that I want to become obsolete in my work . My idea of fulfilling my job is when I have done the capacity-building and people in these countries can do what I do on a day-to-day basis, because it’s not rocket science, so how do I make sure that self-reliance is assured in these communities?

Your choice of the word “self-reliance” strikes me as particularly meaningful.

Self-reliance is the true form of sustainability. To me, it means empowering communities in these countries, whether it be through universities or other groups, where people understand how to maneuver through the data, design insurance indexes, and have the skills necessary to develop new technologies. It means ensuring that there is no codependency between me and them, but instead an even playing field of exchange and collaboration.

What is motivating you to do this work?

There is not enough solidarity within institutions for the working class of the Global South — finding anti-capitalistic/anti-neocolonial solutions is the main motivator for me to keep pushing. We have to be honest that the system we continuously vote on and benefit from is the reason these communities are vulnerable, and we need to question the type of impact that we’re having as an institution and what side of history we stand on. It’s about tackling the problem from a holistic and radical outlook — and holding each other accountable is part of the solution.

Is there anything that you would like to add, including about the future of your work?

I feel like the future is a privileged conversation. There is a lot of work to be done in the current moment, and I look forward to connecting with more like-minded people who bring in different perspectives — not just to point out the issues from a westernized lens, but also to come up with grassroots ideas that tackle the issue by holding people accountable here. I think it’s easy to imagine doomsday. It’s harder, but so important, to envision that we can all work together and become the solution. So I look forward to seeing human-centered solutions and not imperialist-capitalist incentivized ones.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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