Regenerative Co-op Farming in Madagascar

Photo by Ratozamanana A.

Regenerative agriculture offers a solution to Madagascar’s critical environmental and socio-economic issues. This report outlines the current situation in Madagascar, explains regenerative agriculture principles, and proposes the creation of a regenerative farming platform cooperative. It also examines the challenges of conventional agricultural methods, the significance of cooperatives, legal aspects, and the crucial role of trusts in rural communities. Further discussions include criteria for selecting land, conservation initiatives, ensuring global market access for agricultural products, the challenges and expected benefits of adopting regenerative practices, and strategies to facilitate the adoption of regenerative agriculture.

We invite partners dedicated to sustainable development to join our regenerative farming project in Madagascar. We are looking for expertise in modern agriculture, climate adaptation, permaculture, water and renewable energy management, architecture, sustainable design, carbon finance, and agri-tech research, with a special interest in those enthusiastic about platform cooperatives. Potential collaborators include the NCBA CLUSA’s CESI program, GIZ’s PrAda program, IRD, CIRAD, JICA, and other global and local organizations committed to rural development. We are confident that a robust cooperative movement can catalyze substantial positive transformation in Madagascar. Together, let’s move beyond traditional approaches and embrace the innovative potential of regenerative agriculture.

Photo by Ratozamanana A.

The Situation in Madagascar
Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world and the second-largest island country, is situated in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of southeastern Africa. It spans 587,041 square kilometers, making it larger than France and twice the size of Arizona. The island is renowned for its unique natural wonders, including diverse ecosystems and distinctive wildlife such as lemurs and baobab trees. However, it faces significant challenges from climate change, such as rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, and more intense tropical storms, which threaten its unique biodiversity and push many species towards extinction.

Despite its rich biodiversity, Madagascar ranks among the poorest nations globally, marked by significant socio-economic disparities. Agriculture, employing over 85% of the population, predominantly women, is the economy’s cornerstone. Yet, this sector is particularly susceptible to climate-induced droughts, putting millions of livelihoods at risk. The famine of 2021–2022, exacerbated by environmental changes, underscored the delicate balance between Madagascar’s agricultural practices and ecological resilience.

The island confronts severe environmental threats, including deforestation driven by agricultural expansion, logging, and resource extraction. These challenges, compounded by complex land tenure issues, severely impact smallholder farmers—vital to the nation’s agricultural productivity—thus fueling economic instability. Land disputes, limited agricultural investment, dwindling access to clean water, and escalating food security concerns have prompted the United Nations to recognize Madagascar as significantly vulnerable to climate hazards.

In an effort to combat these challenges, the government is striving for resilience and sustainability through initiatives such as the expansion of protected areas and the adoption of carbon offsets to counteract deforestation. While these measures signal a move towards hopeful solutions, the persistence of numerous obstacles highlights the urgent need for collective efforts to safeguard Madagascar’s environment and bolster community resilience in the face of an ever-changing climate.

The Case for  Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative Agriculture is a farming and grazing method that revitalizes farm ecosystems, with a strong emphasis on improving soil health to sustain rather than deplete resources. This method enhances soil biodiversity, water cycles, and carbon sequestration, leading to better resilience against climate changes, healthier crops, and more vibrant ecosystems.

At its core, Regenerative Agriculture works in harmony with nature to boost soil biology, which is vital because soil organisms convert minerals like silt, clay, and sand into over 40 essential nutrients needed by plants, animals, and humans. In exchange, plants provide nutrients back to the soil through root exudates. This interaction not only makes nutrients more accessible to plants but also improves soil structure, optimizes water use, and increases the availability of nutrients. Regenerative agriculture employs practices that protect plants from pests, fix nitrogen in the soil, aerate the soil, increase water infiltration rates, and enhance water retention.

Short-lived weeds contribute 5% of their photosynthesis output to the soil, while trees can contribute up to 80%, and most plants range from 20 to 40%. This process, fueled by substances like humates from plant root exudates, enriches the soil, giving it a dark, chocolate-like color and a pleasant smell. Regenerative agriculture practices result in a steady increase in soil organic carbon and fertility, which, in turn, supports a broader variety of plants and trees.

Regenerative vs. Slash-and-Burn Agriculture
Regenerative agriculture offers a sustainable alternative to slash and burn practices, soil degradation, and deforestation in Madagascar for several reasons:

  • Soil Restoration
    Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving soil health by increasing organic matter, enhancing nutrient cycling, and reducing soil erosion. This can help restore the fertility of degraded soils.
  • Biodiversity Conservation
    Regenerative practices often involve planting cover crops, agroforestry, and maintaining diverse cropping systems, which can support biodiversity and reduce the need for deforestation.
  • Sustainable Land Use
    Regenerative agriculture promotes long-term land stewardship and sustainable land use practices, reducing the need to clear new land for farming.
  • Carbon Sequestration
    Regenerative practices can sequester carbon in the soil, helping mitigate climate change.
  • Resilience to Climate Change
    Regenerative agriculture can enhance the resilience of crops and agricultural systems to the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events.
  • Community Empowerment
    By forming cooperatives and sharing knowledge, regenerative agriculture can empower local communities to collectively manage their land resources more sustainably.

In Madagascar, moving from slash-and-burn methods to regenerative agriculture is key to combating soil degradation, deforestation, and related environmental and socio-economic issues. To successfully implement regenerative practices, three elements are essential: comprehensive education, community engagement, and financial support. These will guarantee the long-term sustainability and success of these practices.

Who Is Practicing Regenerative Agriculture?
The knowledge and techniques required to reverse desertification and climate challenge are already known. There are many successful Regenerative Agriculture practitioners such as Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin, Greg Judy who give presentations to farming symposiums explaining their successes. Regenerative agriculture pioneers Gabe Brown, Joel Salatin, and Greg Judy have made significant strides in addressing environmental challenges through sustainable farming practices. Gabe Brown transformed his North Dakota farm by adopting methods that improved soil health and increased carbon sequestration, leading to higher crop yields without synthetic inputs. Joel Salatin, known for his engaging advocacy, operates Polyface Farm focusing on pasture-based livestock and local food systems, gaining recognition through books and documentaries. Greg Judy revitalized his Missouri farm with “mob grazing,” a technique that enhances soil fertility and biodiversity by mimicking natural grazing patterns, effectively sharing his insights through various educational platforms. These leaders show how regenerative practices can create resilient, productive, and sustainable agricultural systems, offering vital solutions to contemporary environmental issues.

The functionality of soil biology (pedology) is also well known and actively communicated by Dr Elaine Ingham and Dr Suzanne Simard among other scientists. Dr. Elaine Ingham’s work emphasizes the critical role of soil microbiology in plant health, advocating for natural processes over synthetic inputs to sustain soil ecosystems. Her research, alongside Dr. Suzanne Simard’s, challenges conventional agricultural practices and underscores the importance of fostering a diverse microbial life for sustainable and regenerative farming.

Navigating the Shift from Traditional Methods
Most farmers are familiar with traditional and organic agriculture, yet the shift to regenerative agriculture is fraught with challenges due to its complexity, potential costly mistakes, and the fear of initial revenue loss from ceasing synthetic fertilizer use. The general public may not recognize the significant differences between regenerative and organic farming.

Traditional agriculture, developed since the domestication of crops and livestock over 10,000 years ago, often harms soil biology and reduces soil fertility. Historically, once soil fertility was depleted, lands were abandoned.

Organic agriculture focuses on avoiding synthetic inputs, but like traditional agriculture, it does not necessarily restore or enhance soil biology and fertility.

Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, aims to rejuvenate the soil and ecosystem, focusing on soil health and long-term sustainability. Adopting this method requires overcoming barriers through education, adaptation, and initial investments, representing a significant change from practices that degrade soil biology and fertility. 

Slash and Burn Agriculture
Slash and burn agriculture, or “tavy” as it’s known in Madagascar, has been a traditional practice for centuries. Farmers clear land by cutting and burning vegetation, using the ash to enrich the soil for crops temporarily. However, this practice, sustainable in moderation, now contributes to deforestation and soil degradation in Madagascar due to increased population pressure and reduced fallow periods necessary for soil recovery.

This method leads to extensive deforestation, disrupting nutrient cycles and increasing soil erosion by removing the forest canopy that protects against heavy rain. Such practices not only degrade the soil but also reduce biodiversity, turning diverse habitats into monoculture fields.

Similarly, traditional agricultural practices introduced in the Western Plains of the United States in the 1870s led to the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s. In Madagascar, exacerbated by climate change, these practices threaten to degrade ecosystems further, endanger species like lemurs, and jeopardize human livelihoods through impacts on water and agriculture.

The Green Revolution, with its reliance on synthetic fertilizers, has made up for lost fertility but hasn’t addressed soil erosion or the negative impacts of synthetic chemicals, which often leave farmers with minimal profit.

Organic agriculture attempts to avoid synthetic inputs, but it doesn’t inherently improve soil biology or fertility. Relying on organic fertilizers requires importing nutrients, as seen in regions like Sri Lanka, where local land cannot produce enough organic matter to sustain soil fertility, highlighting the challenges in maintaining soil health and productivity through traditional and organic methods alone.

Cooperatives in Madagascar
A cooperative is an independent group of people who voluntarily unite to meet their shared economic, social, and cultural goals through a collectively owned and democratically managed business.

In Madagascar, cooperatives are a key part of the societal and economic landscape, deeply rooted in the ‘fihavanana’ principle, which stresses kinship and community support. Traditionally, practices like “valintanana” (mutual aid in agriculture) have highlighted the value of community ties. Yet, a past shift toward socialism and the nationalization of various sectors, including cooperatives, sparked skepticism about this model.

Madagascar’s cooperative movement is on the rise, with projects like NCBA CLUSA’s CDP and GIZ’s PrAda project aiding its development. The formation of Sectorial federations is just beginning, and there’s hope for the swift enactment of a revised cooperative law.

Cooperatives in Madagascar span several sectors, such as agriculture , fishing, craft, and small industries ,playing vital roles in community empowerment and market access. However, governance and financial issues often force agricultural cooperatives to depend on outside funding and leadership, leading to calls for modernizing the cooperative model, possibly through “platform cooperatives.”

A Regenerative Farming Platform Cooperative for Madagascar 
The project seeks to empower 85% of Madagascar’s population, who live in rural areas and mostly rely on subsistence farming, by creating legal entities that leverage technology for sharing knowledge, pooling resources, and making decisions collaboratively. It proposes integrating online “platform” methods into existing cooperatives. By adopting regenerative agricultural practices and using a platform cooperative model, the initiative aims to improve food security, combat environmental degradation, create jobs, encourage reverse migration, and increase cooperatives’ profitability quickly. Another objective is to lessen reliance on financial aid and eliminate the habit of waiting for external rescuers in the medium term. Definition from the Platform Cooperative Consortium says that Platform cooperatives are businesses that sell goods or services primarily through a website, mobile app, or protocol. Platform cooperatives rely on democratic decision-making and shared platform ownership by workers and users. What could farming platform co-ops do in Madagascar:

Online Marketplace and Co-op Union Development: This platform allows co-op members to display and share detailed information about their organization, products, and services, increasing transparency about quality and quantity. It aims to enhance co-ops’ visibility and reach both export and local markets. The goal is to eventually form a cooperative union to strengthen producer-consumer collaboration and broaden market reach.

Educational Hub for Regenerative Agriculture: Offers farmers insights and guidance on regenerative agriculture, utilizing artificial intelligence to blend local and global best practices.

Local Weather, News Alerts, and Co-op Communications: Integrates real-time weather and news alerts to mitigate risks, and serves as a communication tool for co-op members, announcing key meetings, events, and supporting democratic decision-making.

Mobile Credit Union App: A financial app for co-op members providing deposit, loan, and various financial services, including features to manage carbon finance-generated funds, improving financial transparency and sustainability.

Land Mapping with Blockchain: Uses blockchain for transparent, efficient land management and profit-sharing, ensuring clear land identification and management within the cooperative.

Data Management for Soil and Plants: Focuses on managing soil and plant data, especially for endemic and endangered species, supporting sustainable practices, informed decision-making, and insights into the local ecosystem.

Carbon Offset Calculators and Revenue Redistribution: Incorporates carbon offset calculators to assess environmental impact, with proceeds fairly distributed within the community, promoting environmental sustainability and transparent revenue sharing.

The Regenerative Farming Platform Cooperative will help farmers switch to Regenerative Agriculture, aiming to secure long-term income on their existing land without needing to expand.

Seeking Partnerships
Harinjaka is seeking partnerships with organizations such as “Cultures Permanentes” in France to foster global ecological, economic, and socio-cultural resilience with a focus on human rights. Additionally, collaborations are being explored with Sahl Regen in the UK, which supports farmers across Senegal, Madagascar, and France in adopting Regenerative Agriculture, and CarbonSponge in the USA, an interdisciplinary collective that focuses on soil research to address climate change, improve species health, and enhance resilience. CarbonSponge’s work includes developing protocols for carbon and soil analysis through projects in New York City, contributing to the carbon farming movement.

The Platform Cooperative’s success in Madagascar depends on solid community support, necessitating at least 75% approval from adult residents in each participating community. This approach aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, emphasizing equality and youth development within communities governed by their elected Mayors.

This cooperative is designed to transform local communities by implementing regenerative agriculture and sustainable development principles, leveraging technology to share knowledge and resources among small landowners, farmers, and youth. This effort aims to boost the economy, address environmental challenges, and foster a more inclusive and prosperous Madagascar through agri-tech, carbon trading, and collaboration, moving away from traditional practices.

Critical to the cooperative’s effectiveness is its focus on education and training in regenerative agriculture, utilizing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to cover essential farming practices and technology usage. This training aims to bridge the educational and technological gaps, emphasizing the importance of having at least one tech-savvy individual within the community to guide others.

Moreover, the initiative encourages a sense of collective responsibility among members, promoting collaborative decision-making and resource sharing. This method not only empowers the community but also aligns with sustainable development by improving agricultural practices.

The cooperative also aims to enhance economic well-being by increasing crop yields and diversifying income, including revenue from carbon offset credits and food cooperatives, thus ensuring long-term success and reducing reliance on synthetic amendments for a more sustainable and profitable farming model.

Which Legal Entity Is Best Suited?
Before launching the Regenerative Farming Platform Cooperative, it’s crucial to establish the Groupement d’Intérêt Économique (GIE) with approved statutes, a step vital for the cooperative’s initiation and endorsed by its owners.

The community, acting as stakeholders in the cooperative, requires a unified legal entity like the GIE to represent their interests effectively on the cooperative’s board. The GIE’s statutes are carefully crafted to ensure all community members, including farmers, landowners, and workers, are fairly represented, ensuring equitable benefit distribution.

The GIE’s guidelines are aligned with the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, reflecting a commitment to global sustainability and community well-being.

Trusts also play a crucial role in managing land distribution and ensuring fair benefit sharing within rural communities. They help establish a formal land registry (cadastre) approved by local communities and landowners, creating a transparent land management system. Furthermore, the Trust manages the equitable distribution of the Cooperative’s net benefits to all stakeholders. While the cadastre’s specifics are being finalized, the Cooperative’s funds will aid in developing this essential land management framework.

Land Selection Criteria
The success of the project in adopting Regenerative Agriculture depends on carefully selected land criteria such as annual rainfall, land type, topography, and soil quality, crucial for reviving degraded lands. Initially, areas with at least 400mm of rainfall yearly are chosen, with the threshold potentially lowering to 150mm in later phases. The focus is on previously used lands, preferring flat terrains for a broad application of regenerative practices, starting with a 10% maximum slope, which may increase to 35%. Soil depth must be at least 250mm for effective root growth and nutrient absorption, and a minimum of 1% soil organic carbon (SOC) is essential for fertility, with higher levels accelerating regeneration.

Furthermore, the project commits to conserving Madagascar’s biodiversity, setting aside conservation areas for endemic species and balancing agriculture with biodiversity through sustainable practices and afforestation. This approach aligns with the Cooperative’s values and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, enhancing Madagascar’s unique biodiversity and promoting research in endemic species and AgTech.

The project also focuses on granting cooperatives access to global markets for Madagascar’s key agricultural products like essential oils, cocoa, vanilla, cloves, and coffee. These efforts aim to boost local economies through fair trade while emphasizing environmental sustainability.

Following a “Soft Start” phase in 2022, the next steps include engaging local communities, introducing platform cooperatives, and offering comprehensive training in regenerative agriculture. By leveraging technology such as AI and blockchain, the project seeks to provide farmers with new income sources and accessible support, paving the way for a sustainable and economically empowering agricultural transformation in Madagascar.

Challenges & Projected Outcomes
Implementing regenerative agriculture in Madagascar is promising but challenging. Key hurdles include limited resources, such as capital and knowledge, impeding broad adoption. Educating and convincing farmers of regenerative practices’ long-term benefits is essential, as is developing strategies for resilience against climate threats like cyclones and droughts. Additionally, marketing and selling regenerative products require coordinated efforts among cooperatives.

Regenerative agriculture offers transformative benefits, including enhanced soil fertility, reduced erosion, improved water retention, and ecosystem balance. It promotes pest-resistant, diverse cropping systems and reduces dependency on chemicals. Cooperative marketing and diversified income sources can stimulate economic growth, benefiting Madagascar’s rural communities. Moreover, it supports biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration.

The Regenerative Farming Platform Cooperative Project in Madagascar aims to create a sustainable agricultural system by combining regenerative practices, community engagement, and technology. This approach seeks to improve environmental and socio-economic conditions, enhancing the well-being of current and future generations.

About the Author and Acknowledgements
Harinjaka Andriankoto Ratozamanana emerged as the driving force behind the discussed platform cooperative and is known for his work linking agriculture, technology, and conservation, and has been a prominent figure in empowering youth, earning recognition as a TEDAfrica 2007 and TED 2009 Fellow and 2009. He co-founded the Habaka-Madagascar Innovation Hub in 2011, making significant impacts globally and collaborating with Afrilabs and the Global Innovation Gathering. After leading Madagascar’s digital development (2017-2019), Harinjaka shifted his focus to the cooperative movement in 2020, influencing national cooperative and rural development strategies. Harinjaka actively participated in the inaugural edition of Platform Cooperatives Now, an online course co-taught by Professors Trebor Scholz, the Founding Director of ICDE (Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy) and professor at The New School in New York City, along with Jose Mari Luzarraga Monasterio, co-founder of Mondragon Team Academy. Ratozamanana is also promoting the System of Rice Intensification (SRI).

I’m thankful for my time at the ICDE, where I learned about cooperativism through discussions, readings, and courses like “Leverage Generative AI for Cooperative” and “Data-Driven Resilience for Small Farms.” The “Roots of Resilience” conference, organized by PCC and hosted by ULCCS, offered valuable insights into regenerative agriculture and cooperative platforms. Special thanks to Romain Criquet for introducing me to regenerative farming and Trebor Scholz for his seminar on revolutionary roots of cooperative thought.