Madagascar may be popularly associated with vanilla or rum and sugar cane, but the national crop with no equal is rice (vary in Malagasy). Average annual consumption, while going down, is still the highest per capita in the world, at around 150kg per person, or more than 400g, or a pound of rice a day. To most Malagasy, a meal isn’t a meal without rice, and usually that means a large mound of the grain. To produce the requirement for more than three million tonnes of rice a year, some 12,000 square kilometres of the island are devoted to rice-growing, whether in naturally flooded fields or beautifully terraced and painstakingly irrigated rice paddies. (Rice, with its hollow stalk, is a grass that can survive to maturity underwater, and flooding the fields eliminates most weeds.) Despite this mammoth production, it’s never quite enough, and you’ll see sacks of imported rice in many parts.
The best rice-growing areas can produce three harvests each year. This is typical of the ravishing terraced landscapes around Fianarantsoa, where the country’s master rice-growers, the Betsileo, have rice cultivation down to a very fine art, often using several cultivars. Each farm includes one or more small nursery fields for germination, where the tender, young shoots create intense lime-green splashes among the verdant patchwork separated by dykes of red earth.
Rice-growing is a year-round activity. Before planting, the ground has to be prepared, either by hoeing, or by zebu – often men and boys goad a group of zebu back and forth until the earth is thoroughly broken up. You’ll see people, usually women, bent double planting the new sprouts in the main fields. Later, pre-harvest, the fields are drained to dry off the ears and ripen the grains which once you can often be seen drying at the roadside in many villages. The rice is then threshed by hand or pounded in large mortars to remove the husk from each grain.
Madagascar isn’t just a traditional rice-growing country. It was here, in the densely cultivated areas around Lake Alaotra, northeast of Antananarivo, that the system of rice intensification (SRI) was first developed in the 1980s by a French agronomist and Jesuit priest, Père Henri de Laulanié. SRI stipulates that seedlings are planted singly, in spaced rows, in fields that are fed with compost, weeded carefully, and kept moist to aerate the roots, rather than flooded. The results have been spectacular, with yields of up to six tonnes per hectare compared with the traditional two tonnes, and SRI is now followed in fifty countries.