Madagascar: when Inflation, Climate Change and Cyclones Collide


Madagascar is an island country in the Indian Ocean, approximately 400 kilometres off the coast of East Africa across the Mozambique Channel. At 592,000 square kilometers, it is the world’s largest island after Indonesia. 

Although it is one the five poorest countries in the world, Madagascar is ranked among the world’s top tourism destinations due to its unique endemic fauna and lush flora. With its cosmopolitan growing population that has its origins in Africa, Asia and Europe, the island’s cultural riches often surprises visitors. Recently, the Madagascar movie franchise introduced the island to millions of more ‘fans’ around the world. 

Unfortunately, the lemur island has been facing a multitude of challenges in recent years (inflation, stagnation, climate change effects, etc.) leading to social, economic and cultural upheavals such as famine and forced migration. Madagascar is reportedly among the countries most affected by climate change and rising ocean levels. This calls for urgent adaptation, mitigation and socioecological transformation actions. 

Here below, we take a quick look at the country’s key economic and climate challenges and propose some solutions that could make life much better for Malagasy. 

Madagascar is faced with a number of seismic social and climatic changes. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

Climate change is already here: tropical cyclones and…Kere

Madagascar has been the scene of countless natural disasters, especially cyclones and tropical storms, due to its geographic location. In fact, the island is hit by hundreds of cyclones and tropical storms every year, albeit harmless for the most part. 

Recently, however, the cyclones have been getting bigger, and more dangerous. Cyclone Freddy hit Madagascar in February 2023, killing seven people. It left a trail of destruction in a very curved rare path crossing Asia, Oceania and finally landing in Africa in a record 36 days. In its latest assessment, the Malagasy National Office for Risk and Disaster Management (BNGRC in French) reported that more than 100, 000 people were affected by Freddy. School infrastructure was the most affected and thousands of students are still without schools. 

Several communes are still under water in the Atsimo Andrefana (South West) and Menabe Regions: in those areas, the BNGRC reported 414 flooded properties and 2863 people affected from 689 households. The number of displaced people is 1939 in Manja district and 362 in the sites of Toliara I and Morombe. 

Cyclone Freddy came on the back of violent and destructive Tropical Storm Ana and Cyclones Batsirai and Kenneth in 2022. According to the UN, Tropical Storm Ana left 55 people dead and affected 132,000 in early 2022. Shortly after that, Cyclone Batsirai claimed 120 lives, displaced 120,000 people and affected another 500,000 people and properties. Before that, it was Cyclones Idai and Kenneth in previous years… 

You get the picture. 2023 seems to be going the same way as 2022. This year alone, over 150,000 people have already been affected by violent winds and heavy rainfall and nearly 11,000 more have been displaced. 

Down to the Southern semiarid and arid parts of Madagascar, otherwise known as the Deep South, communities have been experiencing recurrent catastrophic starvation or “Kere” (in the local dialect) for decades. Demographic pressures and worsening drought due to climate change are the main causes of this sustained event which keeps the subregion in a cycle of poverty: 57% of the population are classified very poor (INSTAT 2014) while 67,5% are in continuous undernourishment (Razanakoto 2017).

The scorching heat has left the Androy region very dry, red and almost barren. Photo: Pascal Andriamanambina & RLS Southern Africa

To escape this situation characterised by food shortage and economic distress, Malagasy from Kere-affected communities are migrating northwards. This mass migration means that more food and other resources are needed: land, houses, hospitals, schools, etc.. 

Conflict is almost inevitable as migrants are not necessarily going to be welcomed by local populations that are also already struggling. Although the Northern part of Madagascar looks quite different from the South, climate challenges still exist, in the form of above-average water in some parts and drought in others, with devastating consequences for humans and the wildlife in general.

Inhabitants of Kere-affected communities are selling their property to buy food and migrating Northwards to survive. Photo: Pascal Andriamanambina & RLS Southern Africa

The Russian invasion of Ukraine worsens inflation and cost of living   

Since the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic, Madagascar, already weakened by many factors, has experienced unprecedented inflation, especially for basic necessities. We recently caught up with some suburban small-scale rice and vegetable producers to see how they were faring in the post-Covid, post-Ukraine, post-climate reality context. 

Just like in many other African countries that have seen unrest in recent times, Malagasy are also going through a tough time. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also affected Madagascar. There is less food and it is more expensive, especially staples like cooking oil, wheat and rice. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

The cost of most food items has gone up. Like everywhere else on the African continent, the purchasing price of cooking oil, wheat flour, rice and other staples that people need to survive every day has skyrocketed. The cost of building materials and pharmaceuticals - which is at its highest rate – has also doubled or tripled in some cases.

The cost of food has doubled - tripled even - in recent times. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

Small-scale farmers are taking longer to sell their fresh produce. Sometimes, they are resorting to strategies like reducing portions to sell at the same price that their customers were used to several years ago. 

Inflation is increasing the number of new poor both in urban and rural areas and further widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Families are cutting back on the number of times that they have to eat to get by. Some people are even auctioning off their private property just to buy food. Employment opportunities are few and far between because the Malagasy economy is not growing quickly enough to create new opportunities for a majority of the citizens. All this means that less than 10% of the 29 million Malagasy can say that they are doing well. 

To offer 2021 prices, traders are cutting portions in half. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

Bear in mind that most Malagasy earn their living off the land through agriculture and artisanal mining, and so the biggest share of affected people are those working in agriculture, especially small-scale farmers and vegetables producers since the agricultural calendar and crops seasons have become so unpredictable. 

 “In all our lives, we never had difficulties like today with changes we have not been prepared for that make the land more arid and temperamental, resulting in huge loss of income,” explains one woman whom we have chosen to call Marie. “Our yields are getting smaller and smaller and we cannot afford modern tools because they are too expensive. We cannot also find adaptive and resilient seeds. In addition, we are struggling with access to water and inputs”.

The price of rice - which has almost become a luxury - has soared to nearly five times its usual price. This is an untenable situation in a country where rice is the number one food crop. 

Climate change and the growing demand for dwindling rice harvests has become a major issue for the thousands of rice farmers across the island, from North to South, West to East as well as in the central highlands. People are witnessing the constant decline in yields from year to year, exposing them to shortages within their own households.

This picturesque countryside is hiding one fact: the rice acreage is shrinking. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

 “Times have been getting tougher over the last ten years, our work does not even allow us to feed ourselves properly throughout the year. How do you expect us to live on an empty stomach? We could do better if the state helped us a little because we lack everything here: more land to cultivate, water, seeds and especially money!”

The Vary Maitso borrowing system

It is obvious that poorer Malagasy families are facing a bigger battle to eat especially during the lean period that runs from October to December, i.e. the season before the harvest time when rice farmers are busy in the rice fields with planting, transplanting, weeding, and so on that requires a lot of labour and cash. Because they do not have the financial means to feed themselves and buy inputs at the same time, many small-scale producers are forced to borrow cash or food from private individuals, usurious informal credit systems that have existed in the country for decades. Sometimes, farmers become so heavily indebted (loans, interest repayments, etc.) that they get trapped in the debt system.

To get out, they are forced to pawn or sell their crop - green rice plants still growing in the paddies - at ridiculous prices imposed by their creditors. This is known as the “Vary Maitso” system.

Green rice plants are literally worth their weight in gold in the Vary Maitso system: Photo: RLS Southern Africa

Here is how the Vary Maitso system works:

Vary Maitso literally means “green rice”, i.e. rice plants. There are thousands of small-scale producers across Madagascar and the most valuable possession that they have is their land and the rice that they produce on their land. 

With climate change, economic hardship and other factors, rice harvests have been dropping. The rice acreage is also shrinking, so that many families harvest cannot feed themselves until the next harvest. What can a cash-strapped farmer who cannot borrow money from a regular financial institution do to get out of this situation? 

Well, usually, they go to neighbors, moneylenders (loan sharks actually) and tell them: “I want to give you part of my rice crop that is still growing, the green rice - vary maitso - in exchange for some rice that I can eat right now, or alternatively, give me some money to buy rice from the market and I pay you back later. When my rice is ready, I will harvest it and give you the portion that I took from you, in rice or in money – as you prefer”. 

This system used to be a solidarity mechanism for neighbours to help each other. Now, it has been corrupted by predators who want to make profits or get their hands on prime land on which they can build high-end apartment buildings in cities like Antananarivo that are fast running out of space. 

If a farmer’s meagre production does not allow them to honour their debts, some unscrupulous creditors do not hesitate to confiscate their farm plot.

Vary Maitso used to be a popular and successful solidarity strategy for close-knit communities. Unfortunately, it has been corrupted by vultures and loan sharks who prey on the poor. Photo: RLS Southern Africa.

Land grabs have grown over the years without the state taking any action. The debt scourge that affects almost the majority of the country’s farmers is getting worse. Even more concerning is the fact that Vary Maitso has become so corrupted that corporate national and foreign investors have started offering loan products to get their dirty hands on poor people’s land. 

The government needs to act quickly to end this corruption. If left unchecked, this illegality could lead to the displacement of many vulnerable farmers and possibly create mass social unrest.

Ironically, the government itself recently tried to seize some land around the suburbs of Antananarivo in order to build a new capital. Their efforts were thwarted by brave civil society and community organisers. 

If the corruption of the Vary Maitso system is not brought under control, all these paddies will be replaced by luxury apartments very soon. Photo: RLS Southern Africa.

It is time to mitigate the effects of and adapt to climate change.

No concrete coping strategies addressing climate change-related consequences have been rolled out in Madagascar.

The country tends to rely on chance. 

It is time for this to change. In 2021, the famine in Southern Madagascar was recognised as the first famine in the world induced by climate change. Rising ocean heat in the Indian Ocean means that Madagascar as well as mainland countries like Mozambique, Malawi and even South Africa are going to have to content with more damaging storms, floods and rainfall in the coming years. 

This reality can only mean one thing. Madagascar has to start building climate smart cities fast. It has to invest money in adaptation and mitigation. However, it cannot do that alone. The countries most responsible for climate change have to step in and work with Madagascar to roll out key infrastructure. 

Madagascar is in urgent need of climate smart infrastructure. The country has to build more houses, roads, bridges and telecommunications systems that are resistant to intense storms. It also needs to build dams and catchments areas to mitigate the effects of drought. 

Help has to be brought to farmers urgently. The country needs evacuation systems adapted to each region to mitigate floods effects. In terms of production, extension officers are needed to develop farmer-managed seed systems operated through cooperatives. Farmers should be supported to get more grain for planting. If possible – why not – some of them can be incentivized to grow more for the local Malagasy and African markets. Madagascar lacks the logistics to export food to other African countries, its closest potential market, and this is surely not right. The priority, however, is providing finance and infrastructure to help Malagasy grow enough rice to meet their needs now. 

Small-scale farmers need money and inputs to help Madagascar achieve food self-sufficiency. Photo: RLS Southern Africa

The lack or absence of infrastructure is a barrier to better rice production and even food self-sufficiency.

Regrettably too, no clear policy has been put in place to mitigate the impacts of inflation in the current international war context. Instead of providing emergency aid interventions, including distribution of imported rice that does not fit the local context and undermines the human dignity of the inhabitants, sustainable initiatives must be implemented urgently. The government could for example promote local food production through the granting of solidarity funds and establishment of guaranteed purchase schemes. Elsewhere it could also strengthen and equip local markets to build better circular economies that leave no one behind.