Does Madagascar Grow Coffee?
An island country 400km off the East coast of Africa, Madagascar is famous for its biodiversity and varied landscapes.
The history of coffee production in Madagascar is linked to the history of its neighbouring island, Réunion. Following French colonisation in the 1600s, the island of Réunion became a hub for coffee cultivation, so much so that the island itself was known as ‘Bourbon’ until 1848. In the 1800s, poorer coffee planters on Réunion relocated to Madagascar for better economic opportunities and struck deals with the ruling Merina Empire to cultivate and export coffee. When France colonised Madagascar almost 50 years later in 1896, they further encouraged this cultivation.
In the early 1900s, various colonial policies all helped the Malagasy (Malagasy is the preferred term, rather than Madagascan) sector grow and encouraged more farmers into coffee production. These policies would eventually help coffee farming survive through the C price collapse in the 1930s. Madagascar became independent in 1960 and coffee production reached its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it was producing over 1 million bags annually.
The coffee sector underwent liberalisation in 1988 when CAVAGI, the government’s marketing board responsible for setting prices and exporting coffee, was abolished. Liberalisation was not specifically aimed at the coffee sector but was rather an attempt by the Malagasy government to improve the economy. Decades of political instability, poor economic policies and the country’s susceptibility to natural disasters had, by this point, turned Madagascar into one of the world’s poorest countries. At the same time, the coffee industry was declining due to ageing and poorly maintained crops, limited transport infrastructure, and farmers receiving little access to inputs or support.
Sadly these trends only continued, and in recent decades exports have further tumbled, with the industry never quite managing to recover. Vanilla and cloves have since overtaken coffee as the most significant cash crops, with most coffee now being consumed domestically. Whilst the success of some high value cash crops has created optimism about a return to glory for the coffee sector, the reality is that issues such as poverty, deforestation and population growth must be confronted for the industry to stand any real chance of revival.
How is coffee farming carried out in Madagascar?
Coffee farming in Madagascar is primarily carried out by smallholders on small, family-run farms. They rely on traditional methods, often handpicking cherries and processing them naturally using organic methods, although without certification. Farmers lack access to fertilisers and other agricultural inputs, instead using natural fertilisers which encourage biodiversity and keep pests under control. As with many other African countries, intercropping coffee trees with subsistence crops is common.
Where is Madagascar coffee grown?
Madagascar is the most genetically diverse place in the world for coffee. Since the recent discovery of six ‘new to science’ coffee species in the North of the country, half of the world’s 130 recognised coffee species are native to Madagascar. The vast majority of wild coffee species there are either low in caffeine or caffeine-free. Though they are unlikely to be ever produced commercially, research into these species is crucial for the development of current commercial species toward something that will be able to survive our changing climate.
Unfortunately, many of these species themselves are at risk. Most Malagasy depend on subsistence farming and slash and burn agriculture, which, along with overgrazing and high usage of charcoal and firewood, are fuelling deforestation in the country.
Robusta mainly grows on the east coast in the humid, tropical lowlands at altitudes between 100m and 300 m.a.s., where you’ll find the heaviest and most consistent rainfall. Key regions here include Antalaha, Tamatave, Vatovavy and Fitovinany.
Robusta also grows in the north, and on the island of Nosy Be: an island formed by volcanoes, where the soil is fertile and rich in minerals. The climate there is hot and tropical year-round. Around the northern district of Ambanja and along the Sambirano River, trade winds and a nearby mountain range create a specific warm, humid microclimate in the river valley that is well suited for Robusta growth.
Arabica production in Madagascar is centred around the high altitudes of the central plateau within Northern and Central Madagascar. Sitting at over 1200m above sea level, the region of Itasy is particularly well-suited to Arabica cultivation, with temperatures that are cooler than the rest of the country, and a distinct dry and rainy season.
What types of coffee are grown in Madagascar?
The vast majority, around 95%, of coffee grown commercially in Madagascar is of the Robusta variety. The plant’s resilience is largely what has enabled it to survive, as maintenance practices within the country have deteriorated due to the lack of educational resources available to coffee farmers. At present, very small quantities of Arabica are produced, though even this is threatened by Madagascar’s vulnerability to climate change.
Belonging to the same family as Robusta, but with smaller beans, the Kouilou varietal is common in Madagascar. Meanwhile, Arabica production is primarily made up of Bourbon and Typica varietals. Recently, farmers in the central Itasy region gained media attention when they started producing Bourbon Pointu, also known as Laurina, an Arabica varietal that is incredibly rare due to the low caffeine content that leaves it largely unprotected from pests and disease.
Is Madagascar Coffee Good?
Although Robusta does not have as refined a standing as Arabica, Madagascan Robusta is generally considered to be of good quality. With a pronounced acidity and a strong finish, it is also said to have a well-balanced and smoother profile in comparison to other ‘traditional’ Robustas. This combination lends itself to blends.
In terms of Arabica, Madagascar currently produces limited quantities, and speciality coffee is still in its infancy there. It is being pioneered by the Zebu Coffee Estate in the Itasy region: a small family-run farm that is the only dedicated speciality Arabica farm in the country. Focused on cultivating Typica and Bourbon, the farm produces just 700kg of green coffee per year. Most Malagasy coffee is naturally processed as water availability is often a problem.
The profile of the Laurina varietal is typically delicate, light-bodied, sweet and fruity, with minimal bitterness. Due to the tiny quantities produced, Laurina is primarily purchased by luxury restaurants and hotels within Madagascar, rather than being exported.
When is coffee in Madagascar harvested?
The harvest period for Madagascan Arabica starts around April and continues until July, whilst Robusta is harvested from June and July onwards.
How much coffee does Madagascar produce?
According to the ICO, Madagascar is the 23rd largest coffee producer in the world. In 2020, the country produced 366,000 60kg bags and, in 2019, it produced 380,000 bags. These figures stand in stark contrast to the over one million bags that were produced annually in the late 1980s and early 90s.
How much coffee does Madagascar export?
Despite producing hundreds of thousands of bags of coffee, high rates of domestic consumption mean that most coffee produced in Madagascar is traded and consumed locally.
Madagascar has a unique and thriving coffee culture, with street vendors fuelling the nation’s obsession. Vendors go through a daily routine of purchasing green coffee from wholesale market traders before roasting the beans, grinding them, and then brewing them through a cloth filter. It is common for Malagasy to start their day at a street kiosk with a piping hot cup of coffee, often served with condensed milk, and a rice cake or doughnut. Although cafes and coffee shops do exist in larger towns and cities, they are only visited by the wealthy and are completely unaffordable for the vast majority of the population, 75% of whom live in extreme poverty.
High domestic consumption has not always been so, as most coffee produced during the late 1980s and early 90s was exported. Following internal unrest, economic decline, and the coffee price crisis in the 1990s, exports declined significantly. In recent years, low international coffee prices have only added to a general disinterest in exporting coffee, as coffee farmers often receive higher prices selling domestically.
Currently, less than 20% of Madagascan coffee is exported, primarily to countries such as France, Morocco and Belgium. According to the ICO, Madagascar exported 23,663 60 kg bags between 2020 and 2021. Between 2021 and 2022, 19,480 bags were exported.
What is the current price of coffee in Madagascar?
Likely owing to the fact that such small amounts of Madagascan coffee are exported, up-to-date prices are hard to come by. Selina Wamucii reports that the approximate price range for Madagascar coffee in 2022 is between $1.46 and $4 per kilogram or between $ 0.66 - $ 1.81 per pound. It is clear, though, that farmers often receive better prices selling locally. In 2017, coffee was selling domestically for 20,000 ariary per kilo (at the time, around $6.50) when international coffee prices were 6,930 ariary or around $2.20 per kilo.