17.04.2019 | Madagascar between pepper and vanilla

On a recent trip to Antananarivo, a contact asked us over lunch what the perception of Madagascar is in the UK. Having just discussed Brexit in some detail - as I had with several taxi drivers over the course of the trip - it was almost shameful to admit that in the popular imagination here the Dreamworks film named after the island almost certainly remains people’s most immediate reference.

In many ways, this is understandable.  Until the December 2017 publication of novel Beyond the Rice Fields, not a single literary work by a Malagasy author had been translated into English.  The author of that book, Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa, has more recently authored a history of the country called Madagascar entre poivre et vanilla, a reference to the country’s two main exports.

Coverage of Madagascar in the international press is mostly limited to descriptions of its incredible biodiversity, largely ignoring its 25 million inhabitants or scolding them for harming the local environment.  In a country in which the World Bank estimates that 75% of people live on less than $1.90 per day, the focus on ecological preservation can seem somewhat misplaced if undoubtedly urgent.

While it is widely recognised that many countries across Africa are hugely underreported in western media, Madagascar especially attracts remarkably little coverage.  Outside of certain French-language publications, the country’s presidential elections in January 2019 passed by with little comment.

Our visit coincided with a degree of post-election optimism as officials explained how the new President Andry Rajoelina would improve living standards and address historical cronyism and rampant misuse of public funds.  There was general relief among the people we talked to that a period of perceived stasis under technocrat leader Hery Rajaonarimampianina between 2014 and 2018 had come to an end with several contacts mentioning that more had been achieved in three months under the new government than during the previous four years.

The Malagasy electorate is right to be sceptical of any grand claims.  After decades of poor governance, Madagascar is the only non-conflict country in the world to have become poorer since 1960.  More recently this was exacerbated by a coup in 2009 which presaged a damaging interregnum until 2013 which saw growing insecurity, the country’s economy crash and aid curtailed as the country was practically excluded from the international community. 

While Rajoelina has talked encouragingly of reform and already undertaken certain populist gestures, including the import of thousands of tonnes of rice from Pakistan, and its sale at half-market rates in Antananarivo and the port city of Toamasina.  Yet it remains to be seen whether he will be able to raise living standards in any sustainable way and deliver on promised improvements to security and the environment.

In spite of record global prices in recent years for the country’s main cash crop vanilla, the country’s tax receipts, valued at around 10% of GDP, are among the lowest in the world.  The government’s inability to grow the state budget limits its range of policy options when it comes to alleviating poverty.  This leaves the country dependent on budget support from international donors which, given the lack of engagement with the island, has often been insufficient.

An exception to this international indifference is the former colonial power France.  French influence in Antananarivo is particularly visible.  The station, the Gare de Soarano, was built in the early 20th Century by a French architect and the majority of the city’s taxis are French-made cars from the 1960s and 70s.  The ties between Madagascar and France have remained close since the implementation of the Françafrique system in the 1950s by Jacques Foccart who would regularly plot the course of Malagasy politics with President De Gaulle from Paris.  French commercial interest in the island remains strong with major French corporates Total, Orange, Societe Generale, Canal Plus and Lafarge all active in the country.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism about Madagascar’s prospects.  Aside from the country’s obvious ecotourism potential, there are considerable opportunities in renewable energy, agribusiness and infrastructure projects.  This potential can be capitalised on as Madagascar also boasts the fastest broadband internet speeds in Africa thanks to the East African undersea fibre optic cable.  For this reason, in January 2019 Quartz reported that the country is increasingly becoming a Francophone hub for back-office outsourcing and call centre services.  This promise has been mirrored by the country’s first qualification for the 2019 African Cup of Nations - an historic achievement for a country where rugby has traditionally been more popular.