LET THE GAMES BEGIN: Using simulations to collect data and disseminate information on livestock insurance

My sojourn in August was to Samburu county in northern Kenya. The county is in the country’s arid and semi-arid region and is mostly inhabited by pastoralist communities. My colleagues and I were there with the intention to play games with the locals. Yes, we were there for a game experiment on gender and insurance.

At that time, the 2018 FIFA World Cup was at its fever pitch. Grown men screaming and cheering loudly for the love of the game was a common phenomenon. This time round, the beautiful game had a new twist to it – a video assistant referee otherwise known as VAR. The technology had finally found its way to the beautiful game. I digress, back to my Samburu trip. I am in Samburu and I can’t help but think of how simple and beautiful life here is. Folks here have no worries about fuel prices, traffic jam, work deadlines or calories’ intake for that matter.

Though I know that I am here to play games with the local communities, I begin to realize that I have fallen in love with the place and start thinking of setting up a home in the area. Realizing that my wife would not hear any of it or even remotely consider the idea, I jolt back to reality and focus on my mission is restored.

The use of games and simulations could be a ‘game changer’ in many ways one being in learning institutions. Although this technology can be challenging and time consuming to implement, the rewards are immense seeing that it can provide new ways of engaging beneficiaries and learning their behavior to inform development programming.

As the Samburu people are mostly pastoralists, it is common to see young men, known as Morans, herding large herds of cattle, goats, sheep and camel. The community is patriarchal and key decisions related to livelihoods, in this case livestock, are mostly made by the man of the house. Women too have their roles. They keep a small herd of livestock at home to cater for household needs.

For pastoralists, migration is one of the main coping strategies for droughts. The scarcity of pasture that plagues this beautiful vast land during drought, dictates that local communities keep moving to find ‘greener pastures’. Stakeholders such as government, researchers and other development actors, are implementing different interventions to cushion these communities against the adverse effects of droughts. One such intervention is the Index-based Livestock Insurance program being implemented by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Livestock farmers are able buy insurance premiums during a sale window and get paid in the event of a drought. They can use the funds to take buy food and other essentials for their families as well as fodder, water and vet services for their animals during these challenging periods.

I had carried several tablets with me to help me accomplish my mission to Samburu. The tablets were loaded with a   game known as ‘SIMPASTORALIST’, an abbreviation for the phrase ‘simulating pastoralist’.

The game would help me collect information on the decision-making process within households, concerning the resources at their disposal at a given time.

Collecting this information would help answer some very fundamental questions, that would inform future designs of interventions such as the index-based livestock insurance. Some of the questions I intended to answer are:

  • Do households share risks, such as drought, efficiently?
  • Does framing of a product (family insurance vs livestock insurance affect how households allocate insurance payouts and/or how risk is shared?
  • Does insurance help both women and men maintain their herd throughout a certain period? Do they equally benefit?

The results from the game would eventually be compared to and used to understand real-world outcomes. Further, if it emerged that insurance framing matters in the game, a framing experiment maybe carried out as well.

For the game concept to be executed successfully, several factors must be taken into account. First, learning materials to aid in delivering the content must be prepared. Second, protocols to be followed during implementation, must be designed to ensure that delivery of the content is seamless.

Apart from the game which had been installed in the tablets, introductory scripts and a short skit translated into Samburu language had also been developed. The script would introduce the game concept and make the participants aware of the different variables within the game. The skit was a short roleplay act by two of our research assistants. It depicts a village set up and friends visiting each other to discuss recent events, one of which is drought. During the conversation, the concept of insurance is discussed though not explicitly.

How is the game played?

As mentioned earlier, the game is played on a tablet. With the support of research assistants, about 10 couples at a time are assembled in a group at a community meeting point. Each research assistant is assigned to input one couple’s choices onto the tablet throughout the game.

At the beginning of every round of the game, a household or individual is allocated some amount of money to buy livestock (in our case goats). They must pay a fixed amount for household consumption in each round and can decide whether to buy insurance for their livestock or not. Within the game, the husband and the wife each maintain their own herd of goats and face correlated but separate shocks. They can buy or sell goats and transfer money between them, allowing them to share risk. In one version of the game which we call the ‘insurance game’, they can purchase insurance, which is randomly framed in one of two ways; as ‘family insurance’ or as ‘livestock insurance.’ The two products are quantitatively equivalent, but ‘family insurance’ is framed as a product whose payout will cover the consumption (household) needs of a family member in the event of a drought. On the other hand, ‘livestock insurance’ is framed as a product whose payout will be enough to replace lost livestock in the event of a drought. In the case of a severe drought, households have to make tough choices about whether to stop paying school fees, reduce household expenses, or liquidate assets in this case sell goats. If one has insurance and drought occurs they will receive a payout, this payout will be money that will be added in the household wallet and act as a cushion.

At the end of the game participants are scored based on the amount of money they have accumulated, the number of goats they have and a child who had completed ten rounds of the game the game would be deemed as graduate. The final outcome of the game score was based on the mentioned variables and the monetary bonus was given as a reward. The reward varied from fifty to two thousand Kenya shillings.

The implementation of the game was a success, and also came with quite a number of lessons learned. The participants were actively involved in the process. The fact that our game had a monetary bonus at the end of it ensured competition amongst the participants. They were aware that sound strategy during the game and their decision making would impact on the bonus received at the end of the game.

It was also interesting seeing how couples discussed their strategies in playing the game. In some instances, a man would be overcome with emotion if he had not bought insurance and a drought occurred. This meant loss of livestock. On the contrary, there were sighs of relief from the man when the drought struck while he had insurance.

it is difficult to forget the laughter and ululation let out by one of the women when it rained. Her goats increased in number and she had more milk. There were also uncomfortable grins from the men when their wives scored higher during the individual games. At the end of the exercise, everyone was of good cheer and wanted to continue playing. There were many memorable moments.

The process allowed the members of the community to be active rather than passive participants during the sessions. They grasped the content of the game easily as they played and consequently they also understood the concept of insurance better.

As I reflected on the successful implementation of these activities, several thoughts came to mind. What does the future hold with regards to the use of games in the research and development space?  Could games be used as an extension tool for livestock insurance?  Can we use games more effectively to collect more complex data?  What of the alpha man whose wife scored the higher than him during the game? Will he change his perception about women as being “weak”? Will he eat her meals?

However, you look at it, games carry a great potential in this field. Let the games begin.

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