The well-watered central highlands region, with its marked seasons, provides ideal conditions for many crops.
On the region’s eastern slopes, in areas cleared of mid-altitude rainforest, between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes a year of coffee – mainly robusta and a little arabica – is grown on farms and small plantations. Ambatomenaloha, southwest of Antsirabe and Anjoma Itsara, northwest of Fianarantsoa, are centres of small-scale arabica production, but in many parts coffee trees are harvested like a wild crop, and their beans roasted for home use. As well as the commercial varieties, Madagascar has more than 50 species of wild coffee, many with very low caffeine and some not yet named. There’s a coffee research station at Kianjavato, midway between Ranomafana National Park and the coast, where you can see many of them.
The Sahambavy tea plantation, some 22km east of Fianarantsoa along the Fianar–Côte East railway line (but a 40km drive along a circuitous route), was started from scratch in the 1970s, using Kenyan tea bush cuttings. It produces around 500 tonnes a year on its five square kilometres, representing nearly all of Madagascar’s tea production. Tea bushes thrive particularly well in areas with high rainfall and acidic soils, so rainforest clearings are ideal. Factory and field visits are possible.
Wine is perhaps the most surprising of Madagascar’s stimulant crops. Wine grapes, planted originally by French Jesuit priests, are important in the district around Fianarantsoa and Ambalavao, where the country’s best-known vineyards – Lazan’i Betsileo, Soavita, Clos Malaza and Domaine de Lovasoa – are all found. Together with several other small producers, they make about 10 million litres a year for the local market. Unfortunately, little if any Malagasy wine even reaches supermarket plonk standards and few of the best restaurants and hotel dining rooms serve it. The problem seems to be that the growing season is dry, while the ripening season coincides with the hot, wet austral summer. The harvest takes place in February, by which time the grapes have spent many weeks being gently steamed. One new producer may be onto something: Clos Nomena at Ambalavao has been experimenting since 2001 with noble grape varieties from France, rather than the usual international hybrids. Since 2011 they have been producing the first vintage wines in Madagascar – much more expensive, but worth seeking out.