Land of Enchantment. Coffee of Madagascar

Antananarivo   Antananarivo Antananarivo Madagascar Madagascar AntananarivoAntananarivo

You probably heard that the best vanilla in the world comes from Madagascar. You have also learned that some great cacao beans are produced in Madagascar. But have you tried coffee from this not well known part of the world where besides acclaimed spices, the fertile and organic soil along with proper elevation gives favorable condition for Arabica coffee to thrive?

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First time I came across to the coffee from Madagascar was when I tried to find any roaster who carries exotic coffees from other coffee producing regions, less known to us, baristas and coffee professionals in specialty coffee chain. My search led me to  Sea Island Coffee based in the United Kingdom. I never heard about Sea Island Coffee but their philosophy is to offer product of a unique combination of the soil, topography and climate where great coffee originates from. Sea Island markets and sales coffees from less known regions, what we call, hardly known and in some cases, hard to get coffee regions, places like St. Helena or Madagascar.

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Sea Island Coffee describes their approach to coffee in this words: “Cup quality is an essential feature, but just as important to our coffees is their combination of scarcity with extraordinary stories and exotic locations – story-centric rather than cup-centric coffees.” So, getting coffee from Madagascar directly from Sea Island two years ago was not such a difficult task but it was the major turndown, the way coffee was roasted. To my disappointment Madagascar coffee roasted by Sea Island turned to be fully dark roasted coffee where you simply can’t unveil all characteristic or/and potentials of Arabica coffee from this less coffee nation. After this cup of coffee I made a promise that one day my coffee journey would take me to Madagascar where I can lean directly about coffee production of this far away land.  When I was planning my trip to African continent for 2017-2018, Madagascar was the first country on my list. But all of sudden, the outbreak of pneumonic plague from August 2017 devastated the country by killing local population who did not have first aid and treatment offered to them before it was too late. Trying to take some precautions I canceled my original booking for Madagascar for December 30, 2017. Following the news on daily basis, trying to grasp more info about plague and preventative measures offered by WHO (World Health Organization), I finally was able to book my flight to Madagascar for January 10, 2018 with Kenya Airways from Accra, Ghana. Before Ghana I was discovering coffee plantation in Sao Tome and Principe, the story I shared with you previously.

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Having confirmed flight to Madagascar and knowing you will be visiting this country made me so excited and happy. I wanted to learn more and more about the land that hardly known in specialty coffee chain. If Madagascar could produce great quality vanilla beans and cacao, it should not be long enough or far enough to taste the amazing cup of Madagascar coffee. My touch down in Antananarivo airport, the capital of Madagascar occurred on January 11, 2018.  Madagascar is a huge island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean, and off the coast of East Africa. Doing my online research about coffee production in Madagascar brought me to Zebu Coffee where with few email communication I was scheduled to meet with some people behind the coffee plantation.

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As former colony of France, Madagascar uses French as one of the official language of the country along with local language known as Malagasy. Before French colonization, Madagascar was a Kingdom and ruled by a series of Merina nobles. The monarchy collapsed in 1897 when the island was absorbed into the French colonial empire, from which the island proclaimed independence in 1960. Madagascar is poor nation and belongs to the group of the least developed countries with huge potentials and prosperity if corruption be eliminated and government could change for better to serve the best interest of people and the country instead of personal use and self advantage. The incredible green beauty of the land, mesmerizing landscape, colonial French architecture from the 19th century makes this land absolutely adorable where African, Asian and European influences creates unique diversity and the mixture of the cultures that live side by side. My first research online about coffee farm in Madagascar started in September 2017 before even my departure from the US for Kenya as first stop of my tour around African continent. I was introduced to the men by the name of Danny Skutelis, originally from Latvia and living in London who is behind the Zebu Coffee farm in Madagascar.

Danny Skutelis
Danny Skutelis

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After visiting Madagascar for his honeymoon in 2013, Danny Skutelis, realized the amazing potential of this land within the Bean Belt.  He came back 6 months later and partnered with local entrepreneurs Haja Rasambainarivo and Njaka Ramandimbiarison to create the Zebu Coffee company. They moved the project forward to start growing a quality Arabica coffee and develop the necessary infrastructure for the village to thrive.

On January 12, 2018 I was picked up from my hotel room La Pavillion de l’Emyrne in the capital of Antananarivo by Haja and Njaka and we started our journey into the world of Madagascar Coffee. Born in 2014 in Madagascar, Zebu Coffee is a creation of like-minded individuals from different parts of the world who share a true passion for not only growing quality coffee but also helping the local community. We left at 6 in the morning trying to bit the heavy traffic of Antananarivo as it becomes really impossible to drive. People from villages make long journey to come to the capital and sell their produce in order to make money to survive. There are no jobs and unemployment rate in the country is high. Madagascar unemployment rate was at level of 2.4 % in 2017, up from 2.2 % previous year. In Madagascar, the unemployment rate measures the number of people actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force.

Driving through picturesque and perfectly laid out green land of evenly planted rice fields, incredible hills, evenly paved roads with about 3 hours journey and one obstacle on the way where our car got stuck in the mud, and help of villagers needed in order to move the car out of the way, we finally made it to Zebu Coffee Farm, or new project for Madagascar coffee, new plantation and new development. I have asked Haja to share with me his and Njaka story, their vision and why they decided to end up in getting into specialty coffee scene. After his computer science undergraduate studies in Madagascar, Haja Rasambainarivo graduated in E-business at HEC Montréal in Canada and worked as an IT engineer for a non-profit organization based in Washington DC.  Njaka Ramandimbiarison studied administration and finance in Madagascar before moving to Canada to pursue a MBA in marketing at the University of Moncton. He worked several years in the skincare sector in Canada and the IT industry in South Africa.

They both returned to Madagascar to accomplish their entrepreneurship dreams and create much-needed jobs in their home-country. It is very fascinating how many talented and incredible people you meet on your travels who share with you their stories and life and their future.

The largest coffee plantation in Madagascar had always been owned by the French, who produced arabica and robusta coffee beans for the world market. But still, about 85 per cent of the coffee was grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, so much was exported that the people of Madagascar could rarely afford to drink coffee themselves. Their usual drink was the substitute of water in which rice has been boiled. This island is one of the richest areas of biodiversity on earth. Madagascar’s domestic economy, from the beginning of colonial times, has been geared toward export promotion. Exports consisted primarily of coffee, but rice and beef were sold abroad as well. Coffee was originally planted on only the east coast, but expanded around the island when it became apparent that producers were able to generate large profits. Because of this expansion of coffee, the island’s economic development was uneven.

Zebu coffee is a new project built on 2 hectares land with about 4,000 shrubs of coffee planted side by side with distance between them. The only varietal grows at Zebu coffee farm is red bourbon. The philosophy of them farm is to stay away from chemical fertilizers and concentrate on organic compost. The natural fertilizers applies to the coffee shrubs are mixture of manure, animal urine and leaves, fermented for week or so, and used as organic compost. Compost varies between 5kg to 10kg per year and depends on the size of the coffee tree. Organic fertilizers at Zebu coffee farm applied once a year before the end of the rainy season and coincides with cherry ripening. Like any coffee farms around the world that battle with leaf rust or fungus, or even broca, Zebu coffee farm did not escape its fate either. The main parasite that tries to destroy coffee plantation here is leaf miner that lives in and  eats the leaf its of plants. To fight this bug, Zebu coffee uses biotrine which is biological  insecticide applied as a foliar every after 14 days to control leaf miner spread over coffee plantation. Besides coffee the farm involved in avocado production as another cash crop to sustain economically during the off season coffee production. The other main goal for entrepreneurs with skilled mind, Haja and Njaka is to build eco lodge on the coffee plantation where tourists will be able to observe the whole production from farm to cup and simply unwind and relax on the mountainous area of Madagascar away from city crowd and embrace with nature of this beautiful country.

The next step and very important for Haja and Njaka is to build washing station and mill with properly installed African raising beds for drying. When their first harvest season would knock on the door they would be ready to fully realize their dream of producing the high quality coffee of Madagascar to be imported worldwide and consumed domestically so not only locals but coffee connoisseurs around the world would be able to finally taste the most exotic specialty cup of coffee from Madagascar. But for now a lot of work in progress and I will be returning back to Madagascar to help and learn more what and how we can make coffee of Madagascar more special and more approachable to consumers worldwide.

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