Madagascar’s expanding population needs food. Changing climates make crop production risky. The South East Asian ancestry of Madagascan people is seen in the meticulous rice paddy terracing outside Antananarivo, the country’s capital.
Above those valleys the hillsides are almost completely devoid of natural tree cover. A few community-planted pines and eucalypts dot the slopes, but local people prune even these trees to their very tips for fuel wood for cooking. Very little biodiversity remains – and that includes lemurs.
My visit was to Ambohiboahangy, 30 kilometres from Antananarivo. The destination, two local farm cooperatives – Coop Tsinjo and Coop Taratra Ambohiboahangy. The field trip was part of a series of regional training-of-trainer sessions for forest and farm cooperative leaders, organised by the Forest and Farm Facility. This training, led by IIED, was in risk management and sustainable business incubation. Most of the participants from Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Togo and Zambia represented forest and farm producer organisations.
Collectively, these organisations and their businesses are made up of millions of farmers, providing an ideal route to spread training and know-how to achieve landscape-scale solutions.
Collective forest and farm businesses are central to climate action
It goes without saying that collective forest and farm businesses must overcome climate risks (and many other types of risk) if they are to secure food and improve livelihoods for farmers. Their activities are also critical to sequestering carbon within climate-resilient landscapes through forest restoration.
But what are the prospects for that? Africa’s population is set to double by 2050 and most of the food comes from subsistence farming, with average yields per unit area barely increasing in decades.
The bigger picture in Madagascar, for instance, is troubling. Demand for food has driven the loss of 3.5 million hectares of forest from 2001-18 (more than 16% of Madagascar’s total remaining forest). The average rate of forest loss was 105,000 hectares per year between 2001 and 2010. This trebled to 321,000 hectares per year from 2011-18.
Soil erosion above the terraced rice paddy I saw looks fierce. This is not all bad, as the fertility is swept into the terraced rice fields. But in the fight to maintain crop yields most farmers we interviewed were also applying chemical fertilisers and heavy doses of pesticide. Some organic compost was also dug in, though the denuded landscape offers little in the way of biomass.
Taking the first steps into agroforestry
There is a way to change this through agroforestry. Both Coop Tsinjo and Coop Taratra Ambohiboahangy have developed new businesses. They sell more than 30 varieties of vegetable seed in small packets to other farmers in and around Antananarivo. They grow and sell chickens and eggs from several smallholder poultry growers. Both sectors are highly competitive and dependent on intermediate traders.
To diversify its products, Coop Tsinjo has invested in a fruit drying and processing centre, with the support of the NGO, Amadea. The centre sells dried fruit (Cape gooseberry (locally called pok pok), banana and pineapple) and jam made from fruit waste. One entrepreneurial farmer is running a fruit seedling nursery. He stocks and sells more than 40 types of fruit tree to broaden future planting and sales options.
But it is perhaps in a new youth network SOA-Mitsinjo, operating under the parent Coop Tsinjo umbrella, that the most interesting developments are taking place. In one pilot site, the network is establishing a mixed agroforestry system with Arabica coffee intercropped with citrus trees and, in the early phase, vegetables such as carrots and pumpkin. Diversity brings climate resilience while the tree components sequester carbon.
Agroforestry is not yet widespread in Madagascar. Early pilots include those using indigenous species by NGOs such as Ny Tanintsika, or more commercial plantings by the forest and farm producer organisations mentioned above.
These pilots show how farmers can benefit from the use of tree crops: the trees not only diversify product sales but also improve soil organic matter content, fertility and the production of a farmer’s main crops.
A strong business case for agroforestry can improve its contribution to climate action
Agroforestry must surely form a central part of Madagascar’s climate action – such as its commitment to the Africa Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative 100 (AFR100). AFR100 aims to restore forest cover on 100 million hectares of land across Africa as a contribution to the 2011 Bonn challenge.
Madagascar’s own promise is to restore four million hectares by 2030. It’s not yet clear to me how such targets are to be delivered and measured. The promise is to undo all Madagascar’s deforestation since 2001 (and more) in less time than the original destruction occurred. That is some pledge.
Madagascan forest and farm producer organisations will have to see opportunity in agroforestry businesses if the commitment is to be met. In that light, the Forest and Farm Facility’s support is well placed to make sure that these producer organisations understand how to incubate sustainable businesses and manage business risks (including those linked to climate change).
The facility’s vision is of climate-resilient landscapes and improved livelihoods, and its unique approach of investing directly in the capabilities of forest and farm producer organisations will help Madagascan farmers take, what is in my view, this vital step in the right direction.