Madagascar is the fourth-largest island on Earth, located just off the southeastern coast of Africa. Some time in the mid-late 19th century, coffee was introduced here from nearby Réunion Island (known as Bourbon Island at the time).
ICO figures suggest that today, Madagascar is the 23rd-largest producer of coffee in the world, producing a similar volume to countries such as Cameroon and Laos. However, Malagasy coffee production has one key difference: estimates indicate that a significant amount of all coffee grown in the country is consumed domestically.
To learn more about coffee production in the country and what the future might hold, I spoke to two regional coffee experts. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might also like our article on how deforestation in Madagascar puts global coffee at risk.
A brief history of coffee production in Madagascar
Coffee was first introduced to Madagascar from Réunion at some point in the mid to late 19th century. Early accounts of coffee production are scarce until 1895, at which point French colonists arrived on the island and took control of the industry.
The French soon started promoting its cultivation among smallholder Malagasy farmers, and in just a few short decades, coffee became the single most important Malagasy export. By the early 1930s, it was an integral part of the island’s economy.
However, in 1947, a conflict broke out over resources between French colonists, Malagasy nationalists, and Réunion Creoles. The island became independent in 1960, but its close trading relationship with France paved the way to growth and stability for the country’s coffee sector.
From 1960 to the 1980s, Malagasy coffee production flourished, and the country became the world’s eighth largest producer in the world.
In the early 1970s, CAVAGI was founded: this was a central governmental body which monitored the sale and price of coffee, vanilla, and cloves – all of which remain important Malagasy exports to this day.
Things took a turn for the worse, however, at the end of the 20th century. A price crash in the late 1990s, alongside poor infrastructure for coffee production, meant that many Malagasy farmers were unable to remain competitive in the global market.
Many producers responded by uprooting their coffee trees and turning instead to rice, which was a far more stable option. In the late 1980s, estimates suggest that Malagasy coffee production peaked at well over 1.1 million 60kg bags; today, this figure is closer to 500,000.
Modern coffee production in Madagascar
James Wilkinson is a specialty coffee expert and the owner of Omwani Coffee in London. He says that the modern Malagasy coffee sector has suffered from a lack of investment and public sector involvement. He also notes that this has also led to a severe lack of technical knowledge about coffee production.
“It is very difficult to assess the full scope of production,” he says. “The majority of farmers are growing coffee for their personal needs, without any guidance.”
Generally, most of the coffee in Madagascar is grown on smallholder farms. Most Malagasy coffee is organic; however, James says this is not by choice, but rather because of a lack of access to fertilisers and other agricultural inputs.
Farmers commonly practise intercropping, and use natural fertilisers to ensure that the coffee harvest is as healthy as possible. This does, however, encourage biodiversity and the continued use of wild pest control methods.
In recent years, Madagascar’s success with other high-value crops (such as vanilla and clove) has created some optimism about the future of arabica coffee cultivation. The belief, however, is that these luxury crops can serve as a template for Madagascar to begin producing specialty coffee.
James, however, says that a lot of development will be necessary before that can happen.
“There are local cooperative societies. However, these lack funding and general interest from farmers,” he says. “Local farmers are broadly used to protecting their own interests, thanks mainly to a lack of government support.
“This is why, at Omwani, we have a three-to-five year plan in mind about how we can introduce more arabica seedlings, and incentivise community-grown arabica plants through investment and education.”
Furthermore, there are basically no large farms or coffee estates in Madagascar to set any kind of precedent for organised production. This is because, in the 1970s, many large farms were nationalised, and the land was being redistributed among co-operatives. However, even back then, large estates made up just 5% of all coffee production in the country.
Malagasy coffee: A profile
Madagascar is primarily a robusta producer. The species comprises around 90% of all coffee production in the country. The remaining 10% is arabica.
Malagasy robusta is grown in the tropical regions of the country between altitudes of 100 to 300 m.a.s.l., and is harvested from June and July onwards. It is particularly prominent on the east coast, in regions including Vatovavy, Fitovivany, Antalaha, and Tamatave. It’s also grown in Nosy Be in the northwest, near Ambanja and by the Sambirano River.
Most Malagasy coffee is hand-picked and natural processed, as James says water availability is an issue. He notes that there is a small volume of washed Malagasy coffee, but says this is “purely experimental”.
However, as there is little technical knowledge about coffee production among farmers, many Malagasy robusta trees are ageing – and around 70 years old on average. This means they have a reduced yield, and are more susceptible to diseases.
Arabica, meanwhile, is grown at higher altitudes in the central highlands of Antananarivo region, as well as near Lake Alaotra.
One farmer, Jacques Ramarlah, says he is confident that the country’s arabica can achieve specialty status.
“Q graders tasted and evaluated our coffee from the 2019/20 harvest and scored it between 83 and 84,” he says. “The cup was clean and full-bodied. Hopefully we can improve it.”
Dr Nicole Motteux is a sustainable coffee advocate and coffee development specialist. She says that including robusta and arabica, Madagascar is home to 65 species of coffee – including six completely new species discovered earlier this year.
However, these are not grown at any kind of scale, and Nicole notes that many are threatened by soil erosion and other factors.
“Madagascar is exceptional, having the highest number of threatened species, with the majority of the 65 species under extinction threat,” Nicole explains. “Most of it is of no commercial value, but it is coffee nonetheless.”
Export & the coffee trade in Madagascar
Coffee exports in Madagascar are dominated by a small number of firms, the vast majority of whom have strong links to international (often French) trading houses. However, there are a few smaller exporters who ship a container or two annually.
While CAVAGI was a fixture throughout the 1970s and 1980s, agriculture in Madagascar was liberalised in late 1988, allowing private companies to export coffee directly.
Since then, the main organisation governing coffee exports has been the Comite National de Commercialisation du Cafe (CNCC). The nine members of the CNCC are elected by licensed coffee exporters, which include a range of international companies.
“The biggest coffee exporter is TAF,” James says. “They don’t offer single estate coffee from Madagascar, however; they only offer a blend.”
Despite this, the general opinion is that Malagasy robusta is of broadly good quality. Historically, the coffee has been renowned for having a smooth mouthfeel, and less of a “classic robusta taste” than many other origins.
Local consumption trends
Nicole says that many Malagasy start their day with something called “andao hisotro kafe” , an intense coffee often served by kiosk vendors with a heavy dollop of condensed milk.
“It’s the most amazing thing you will ever experience,” she says. “You wake up in the morning and just rush outside to a vendor. They wake up in the morning and just cook up coffee. The main complements are mokary (rice cakes), mofo baolina (fried doughnut balls), and menakely (ring doughnuts).”
Furthermore, a significant proportion of Malagasy coffee is consumed domestically. This means that sacks of green coffee are a common sight at local markets; Nicole says that anyone can buy and roast it for sale or individual consumption.
Nicole says: “Coffee vending is a means of survival and independence for those who can handle the long hours and labour with skill and tenacity.
“Selling coffee on the street is a reliable way to generate some much needed income, especially for women and poorer families.”
There are a few established cafés around the country, but the bulk of consumption is fuelled by roadside kiosk vendors. Mainstream coffee roasting businesses are virtually non-existent.
“However, there are several upmarket cafés, particularly in the major cities, that offer coffee experiences that are a few notches up from the simple wooden kiosks dotted throughout Madagascar,” Nicole adds. “One of the most famous is the La Pâtisserie Colbert in Antananarivo, known for its superb Malagasy coffee, chocolate and desserts.”
Challenges & looking ahead
One of the most pressing issues for Malagasy coffee production is deforestation. Many farmers practice “slash and burn” farming techniques, and the use of agroforestry systems is limited.
According to Nicole, rivers are “running red” because of the excessive soil erosion caused by deforestation. Fruit bats and lemurs, both of which play a role in seed dispersal and plant fertilisation, are losing their habitats as well.
Beyond deforestation, the age of robusta plants in the country is also an issue. Because of their poor yields and smaller beans, the global perception of Malagasy coffee has already plummeted.
“The coffee industry is only surviving because of support from foreign buyers,” James says. “The way forward is to spend resources on educating local farmers, giving them the ability to sell the coffee outside of the local market.”
Unfortunately, he adds, there is a major issue with the language barrier in the country. Many farmers do not speak anything besides Malagasy, making education and technical assistance difficult. To circumvent this, James says that public sector involvement is essential.
Although Madagascar produces hundreds of thousands of bags of coffee, much of it is locally consumed and traded, and the island is some way off becoming a fixture in specialty coffee.
Coffee itself is certainly popular in Malagasy culture, but this domestic consumption alone cannot sustain any real advancement for the country’s production sector. However, through education, investment, and public sector involvement, a change could happen, and the Malagasy coffee sector could return to the heights of the mid-late 20th century.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how coffee auctions can support direct trade relationships.
Photo credits: Dr Nicole Motteux
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