Madagascar is one of the most bio-diverse nations on the planet and grows a variety of valuable crops. Yet, too often, farmers struggle from poverty and food insecurity. Holly Tapani serves as a Peace Corps agricultural extension agent on Madagascar’s eastern coast, Tapani trains women with young children to cultivate permaculture gardens and promote sustainable agricultural practices. “There is a major gap in the type of knowledge available to farmers,” Tapani told The Borgen Project. “However, Malagasy farmers are eager for solutions and willing to go out of their way to accommodate learning.” These 10 facts about agriculture in Madagascar highlight a predominant way of life and discuss common challenges and emerging solutions.
10 Facts About Agriculture in Madagascar
- Agriculture is vital to life. Agriculture is the leading source of employment for both men and women in Madagascar. Indeed, roughly 64% of the country’s population works on either individually or family-owned farms. In more rural regions, this largely takes the form of subsistence farming.
- There is not much land to go around. Because Madagascar’s terrain is mountainous, farmers can only cultivate up to 5% of the country’s total land area. As a result, smallholders make up the majority of farm owners, and the “average farm size is 1.3 hectares.”
- Frequent natural disasters threaten agricultural productivity. Over the past four decades, Madagascar has experienced more than 50 natural disasters, including “cyclones, droughts and locust infestations.” As a consequence, this has eroded land and damaged soil quality. With the prospect of a good harvest now even more difficult to achieve, Madagascar now faces rampant food insecurity.
- Rice has a special place in Malagasy culture. Rice is cultivated on roughly half of all agricultural land in Madagascar. Farmers grow it largely for subsistence, and it is a staple of the Malagasy diet. “Most people eat roughly three packed cups of rice per meal with a small side,” Tapani said. “This is a major part of the culture, and nutrition initiatives from the government have been trying to combat the lack of diversity in a standard Malagasy diet.”
- Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla. Despite being just under one third the size of Mexico, the island nation accounts for 60% of the vanilla supply globally. Thus, to prevent theft and provide protection for vanilla farmers, the Malagasy government has enacted strict regulations on those handling the crop. This means that vanilla pods can now only be transported during the daytime, and “there are harsh penalties for stealing.” In certain cases, some farmers even go the extra mile, tattooing their vanilla beans with distinct features to make it easier to trace their origins.
- Nearly 60% of rural families rely on livestock for income. Cattle are especially important in this regard. One subspecies known as the zebu can be found on farms all throughout the island. “Zebu represent wealth to the Malagasy, so many farmers raise them for both work and meat,” Tapani said. Other livestock, including pigs, sheep, goats and turkeys, are also kept by smallholders.
- Farmers often supplement their farm produce with fishing. In many cases, families in Madagascar will raise different fish in fish ponds they build on their land. Others catch fish in local freshwater rivers and lakes. As with the cultivation of rice, the majority of this fishing is done for subsistence because of the steep cost of transportation to the capital. This makes the market price of fish much too costly for most local consumers.
- Slash-and-burn agriculture threatens Madagascar’s forests. Known as ‘tavy’ in Malagasy, slash-and-burn agriculture is a traditional farming technique that remains widely practiced in Madagascar. Farmers clear mountainous regions and set fire to the land in order to turn forests into fertile ground. However, this ultimately leads to depletion of the nitrogen in the soil and the loss of fertility. This forces farmers to move on to new land, reinforcing the cycle of land destruction and poverty.
- The Food and Agriculture Organization is working to strengthen farmers’ resilience. FAO is helping farmers by collecting data on agro-weather conditions and food security. It is also working with Madagascar’s government to integrate nutritional awareness into school systems and strengthen the sustainability of the country’s natural resources. Ultimately, the goal of these efforts is to pave the way for measures that mitigate the impact of natural disasters on crop production and economic security.
- Peace Corps Madagascar’s Food Security Project is promoting sustainable agriculture and healthy nutrition. Although Madagascar’s economy is largely agricultural, rural communities too often face food shortages and insecurity. Thus, to tackle this dire issue, Peace Corps volunteers work with farmers, schools and nonprofits to train communities on new methods to make sure their basic food needs are met. This includes training on how to grow bio-intensive gardens and holding cooking demonstrations that focus on nutritional education. “As an agriculture volunteer, one of my primary responsibilities involved promoting personal permaculture gardens for mothers with children under the age of five,” Tapani said. Tapani hopes this work will help prevent nutrient deficiencies among the Malagasy population.
These 10 facts about agriculture in Madagascar underscore the importance of farming to economic prosperity and personal wellbeing. Therefore, improvements within the industry remain a major path to reducing poverty in Madagascar.
– Kayleigh Rubin