TREK: Madagascar - An Island of Farmers & Tropical Herbs

TREK: Madagascar - An Island of Farmers & Tropical Herbs

Written by Emily Peterson

Last August I had the opportunity to go to Madagascar with The Whole Planet Foundation, Whole Foods Market, and Madécasse Chocolate to do several service projects that would help a few small communities. Our projects focused on things that would help overcome obstacles that keep them tied to impoverished lives.

Where in the world is Madagascar?

I left on August 15th taking a 10 hour flight from Portland, OR to Paris and then hopped on another 10 hour flight to the little airport in Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo. I thought of Madagascar as a small island off the East Coast of Africa but actually, Africa is just really big! Madagascar is a little smaller than California and Arizona put together. The large size proves real when traveling in the country.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The slow-paced and localized culture makes it challenging to move around the country, but the slow pace ended up being perfectly suitable, allowing me to enjoy the chance to notice all the little things. Once we all met up in Antananarivo, we took a flight to Mahajanga which is farther north. From there we had 400 miles to get to Ambanja where we were based for our projects. The population of Madagascar makes 98.11% less money than Americans so you can imagine what their infrastructure is like. It took almost 12 hours to drive those 400 miles. Our top speed of about 40 MPH happened rarely as we moseyed along, carefully tip-toeing along the dirt and a little bit of pavement that was more pothole than road!

There are few towns - more like small communities - every few miles. No matter how close or far you were to a community there were people along the road. Women walked with their haul atop their head and a baby secured with colorful fabric to their lower backs; people sat at their abandoned-looking road stand selling pieces of single Jack fruit or a few tasty dried bananas; taxi busses were broken down on the side of the road and the many occupants were strewn about in the shade waiting; people's bare feet pushed chipped pedals on their bikes or more often a person pushing the bike while their harvest balanced between their handlebars and seat, if there was one. This may sound sad but sadness never crossed my mind/heart. To me, the northern rural Malagasy had a raw closeness between each other and they really love to laugh. They were always hanging around in groups smiling and appearing satisfied with the way they do things.

There was not much auto traffic along the roads so when our small bus went by kids would come running to give us a wave, while anyone older was either laboriously working or lying in the shade for a nap. From what I saw that is how they work, about 50/50. It seems that everything they do is physically intensive so you either see them working extremely hard or napping in the shade. No matter where you were you could catch someone in a shady spot catching Zs.

The landscapes changed from the arid desert that one would imagine Africa to look like, to mountains and even rainforest-like climates as well. Their homes are developed with mostly plant-based construction: four walls of bamboo, wood sticks or found items, topped with a thatched roof to make the average 10'x 8' abode. They formed amazing little communities that never ended as far as the "road" would go.

Project: Build a Bridge                                   Manga Be, Northwestern Madagascar

Manga Be is a small cocoa (botanically called cacao) community that has been bound to poverty for generations. Having a healthy crop of greatly desired heirloom cocoa should have helped but they were unable to overcome their impoverished situation due to a lack of infrastructure. Although Manga Be’s heirloom cocoa has a unique flavor profile which is “rare” and of higher value, they have not been able to sell their product for the higher price because of a lack of consistent delivery. During the rainy season, they become isolated by the surrounding waterways. 

Plants'NPeople_Madagascar_Images 1.jpg

For generations, they recognized the need for a bridge. Our project was able to provide the materials needed, and the residents provided resourcefulness and knowledge of the land (and engineering skills I might add) so together we were able to build a bridge. They now will have a much better chance to meet the demand for their cocoa as well as get a much higher price, providing them a chance to lift themselves out of poverty and offering hope for the community and its future.

FARM: Lalatina's Heirloom Cocoa               Manga Be, Northwestern Madagascar                       Partner: Madécasse

Cacao pods 

Cacao pods 

The cocoa bean is the foundation of the chocolate we love. The bean is the nut, or the seed, of the fruit of the cocoa tree. The cocoa pod (fruit) hangs from the branches and trunks of the trees. Once picked from the tree they are split open to reveal the beans (seeds). There is a sweet white pulp that surrounds the beans. Once the beans are extracted they are put in bins to ferment. Yeast forms in the pulp using the sweet sugar to break down the pulp and begin the fermentation process. After fermentation, the beans are put in the sun until the humidity in the nibs (nuts) is down to the desired percentage.

Cacao nibs

Cacao nibs

ORGANIC BY DEFAULT; SUSTAINABLE BY INTENTION

Although Lalatina’s cocoa is not certified organic his methods of growing are organic and sustainable. His reasons for farming this way are not in search of the increased value that "organic" offers but for practical reasons. Not only do they lack the money for pesticides, but he knows his community will rely on this cocoa as far as he can see into the future. He must keep its quality intact. This way of thinking and his follow-through on implementing these practices puts him far ahead of most Malagasy farmers in progressive and sustainable farming. 

These farming practices combined with a quality product makes him a perfect supplier for Madécasse. Using the word "supplier" to describe their relationship is, from a business standpoint, true, but much too bleak of a term to really explain it. Madécasse is greatly involved with the farmers that they work with. Madécasse works with the entire community of Manga Be focusing their efforts on aiding them in empowering ways and not in the ways of "band-aids".

This doesn’t just go for Manga Be. We visited CO.KA.FA, a cocoa community that Madécasse also sources from. CO.KA.FA is a group of farmers who all have cocoa trees but as individuals do not have enough product to sell at a fair price but together are able to do so. Madécasse (the founders have roots in The Peace Corps) has been able to get Megha, a Peace Corp volunteer, in their community to help the small struggling community with navigating the business of being a supplier to a large company.

FROM BEAN TO BAR: MAKING CHOCOLATE IN PLACE

One additional admiration for Madécasse is their effort to process the cocoa from bean-to-bar at the source. (The value of what bean-to-bar has done for the Malagasy people is another impact that should not be overlooked. This is definitely not the easiest or financially optimal way to do things. Madécasse sees that 70% of the world's cocoa comes from Africa but only 1% of the world's chocolate comes from there and has taken that as another opportunity to invest in the economy that they proudly source from. (See their report HERE.)

EXPERIENCE: Biolandes                                       PRODUCTION: Essential Oil & Natural Extracts Vanilla, Vetiver & Ylang Ylang

Vanilla is an orchid vine that is a time-consuming and labor-intensive crop. Although we think of most orchids as sensitive plants, vanilla tops the needy list as a crop because it must be hand pollinated and hand-processed. This is not an easy task as each vanilla flower is only open one day and only for a few hours. During those hours someone must use a toothpick or similar object to pollinate the appropriate reproductive parts of the flower. You think your orchid at home is finicky? Each vanilla plant has to be looked after individually every day. This gives a bit more understanding of the cost of vanilla.

The orchid, vanilla, must be hand-pollinated and hand-processed.

The orchid, vanilla, must be hand-pollinated and hand-processed.

Biolandes uses "modern" trellis to support the vines and large shade nets to protect the vanilla from too much sun and heat. In Madagascar, smaller crops are prevalent, where leafless trees are used for trellis and old palm fronds for shade. In this case, the fronds must be moved around so that the plants get some, but not too much sun and heat, which makes the process even more tedious.

Vanilla grading and sorting

Vanilla grading and sorting

Once vanilla is harvested, processing is not any easier. There are five processing steps: curing, killing, sweating, drying, and conditioning. It then goes through grading, which is done by running the bean through a soft pinch to feel for oils and moisture. Each individual bean's quality is determined and sorted appropriately. 

Vetiver

Vetiver is mostly known as an essential oil which is distilled from the plant's roots. It is also a soil stabilizer that is often used as a cover crop and the shoots can be used as animal feed. Biolandes harvests are used for essential oil production. As an essential oil, it has calming, grounding and stabilizing effects, as well is used as an anti- inflammatory, for scarring and skin blemishes, as an antiseptic, and as an insect repellent.

Harvesting vetiver roots for essential oil distillation

Harvesting vetiver roots for essential oil distillation

Ylang Ylang

The ylang ylang flower has a popular scent that is used in most beauty products and perfumes. The ylang ylang flower is collected from trees. The light weight of the flower, as well as the accessible height of the branches, makes harvesting less physically demanding and preferred by the older population. 

Harvesting ylang-ylang

Harvesting ylang-ylang

Once collected the flower is taken to be steam distilled.  Note: The Malagasy enjoy ylang ylang as an ice cream flavor, which I did not get to try and sounds a little too "perfumey" for my taste buds but is something I would love to try. Next time.

Distillation room

Distillation room

FINAL THOUGHT: Traditional Agriculture vs. Modern Agriculture

The thing that has stayed with me the most:  I would have assumed that all producers that are just trying to get by and feed their family would be using pesticides and far less sustainable practices.  Not having the resources to grow their business, Manga Be farmers had the opportunity to skip the bad practices that are used in  "Big Ag" or modern agriculture.  One example is pesticides: they were never an option because of the lack of availability and the cost. Now that the repercussions of non-sustainable practices are getting to all corners of the world including to Lalatina and Manga Be, they will be able to skip that chapter that has so negatively affected many farmers and their land.

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