Madagascar's Flavors of Despair and Hope


Madagascar delivers close to 80% of the globally traded Vanilla, and approximately 90% of this is produced by smallholder farmers in Antalaha and Cape East. As you drive along the almost non-existent roads, you begin to see these vines clutching onto bigger trees.  The beautiful landscape is flavored by this choice of spices. Antalaha is often referred to as the vanilla capital of the world and one can see why as every homestead has these vines growing.

Vanilla easily nets over $ 0.5 billion to the Madagascar economy annually . Despite this huge revenue, driving up and down Antalaha and Cape East it is incredibly difficult to tell that the people you see and the communities you meet are part of a billion-dollar industry. Bedeviled by poor infrastructure, limited production knowledge, corruption and theft, most smallholder producers have been left at the mercy of a middlemen that drain most of the proceeds and a growing theft problem that leads to farmers losing their entire produce without earning a penny. Coupled with annual cyclones, entire crops are often destroyed leaving farmers destitute and vulnerable.

“CARE is our local government here”

This is what first struck me when I visited: the passion with which communities and employees talk about the impact of CARE’s work in Antalaha and Cape East.  

Antalaha is a small-town abuzz with 3-wheel motorbike taxis, small food stalls, markets with women vendors selling vegetables, fruits and fish, and a few stores selling everyday goods like soap and notebooks. Living on the coast comes with untold beauty, beaches, sea food and a relaxed life style.

Behind that beauty and serenity is an ever-present danger and fury from deep inside the ocean. The locals retell the stories of annual cyclones with utmost precision because each cyclone leaves specific scars in the community. The people living here will tell you Cyclone Hudah hit in the year 2000, and it lasted for 2 hours, Enawo hit in 2017 and lasted 24 hours, Gafilo of 2004 for 5 hours and left 300,000 people homeless. The intensity of these monster storms can mean the difference between life and death, food or starvation. The entire life of any resident in this corner of the world seems to be largely shaped by cyclone season.

CARE Madagascar has been operating in Antalaha since 1993, with many programs both aimed at emergency relief, post cyclone recovery and reconstruction as well livelihoods and resilience interventions. CARE's history and relationships make a difference here. One resident told me, “CARE is our local government. Every time we have social, economic and other needs our first point of call is the CARE office.”

When residents speak so fondly of CARE, you begin to get the sense that being there for the long term, through all different kinds of needs, has endeared the organization to the community. A few other agencies have come in for relief programs and folded once the effects of the cyclone had died down. From Cyclone resistant homes, to emergency shelters, to mangrove restoration and planting of buffer zones, CARE has done it all. The road between Antalaha and Cape East was built by CARE after years of it being annually washed away by cyclones. City roads in Antalaha and bridges up and down the region have been constructed by CARE with funding from among others the European Union, the UN and other agencies.

When community members call CARE “our local government,” it is not an indictment of the local governance structures, but rather an endorsement of the deep routed nature of the organization’s presence, the commitment and dedication of the local staff and their tireless efforts as first responders when a cyclone hits, recovery efforts and the years spent trying to transform the lives of the people of this beautiful region.

There is Hope

After the cyclone ENAWO in 2017 CARE’s with support from the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (SVI) helped 3,000 vulnerable families to recover. Families got cuttings to plant new vines, tools that would help them tend the vanilla, and training in techniques that improve productivity. CARE provided 100,000 vanilla vines to farmers, and communities contributed another 40,000 vines to expand their crops.

The SVI aims to improve vanilla bean farmers’ livelihoods and assure the long-term stable supply of high quality natural vanilla. The program liaises with vanilla exporters, producers, sector organizations and public authorities worldwide to progress issues of governance, traceability, labor rights and technical assistance to grower groups.

Farmers are seeing their vanilla gardens blossoming. Through increased financial literacy and setting up of Village Saving and Loan Associations that help women to save money and invest in better productivity, there is excitement in the potential of this crop of flavor to change people’s lives. The value of this new crop is estimated at close to 2.8 Million dollars over the next 8 years.

Vanilla alone is not enough for these farmers. In addition, CARE continues to work with the communities to increase resilience through mangrove restoration and establishment of buffer zones that minimize the impact of cyclones on these communities. The project also works with farmers on techniques to grow maize, vegetables and other alternative crops. There is renewed hope and energy in these communities. Women have a voice like I haven’t seen elsewhere. At the community meetings, it’s the men that are being urged to speak up as the women have been leading entire discussions. Further investments and more engagement will be needed if the people of this region are to prosper. There is Hope!!

About the Project:
The Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (SVI) is a voluntary industry initiative, which aims to promote the long-term stable supply of high quality, natural vanilla, produced in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable way, benefiting all partners along the value chain. The SVI is hosted by IDH, the Sustainable Trade Initiative in collaboration with US-based Sustainable Food Lab (SFL). The Post Enawo Agricultural recovery project was implemented from July 2017 to June 2018 in 5 municipalities of the Antalaha district. Support for this program was mobilized under the SVI.

About the Author:
Elly Kaganzi Is a Senior Technical Advisor for Market systems and Manager of the CARE WWF Alliance. He works within CARE's Global Food and Nutrition Security team whose objective is to ensure 50 million smallholder farmers, particularly women and their families, increase their food and nutrition security as well as resilience by 2020.