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Located approximately 400 kilometres off the coast of East Africa, Madagascar is the world’s fourth-largest island. It is also one of the world’s highest-priority countries for biodiversity conservation due to its exceptional variety of unique plant and animal species. However, this country faces one of the world’s biggest conservation challenges: historic rates of habitat loss, primarily because of slash-and-burn agriculture, and overexploitation of its natural resources. According to the conservation group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), all of Madagascar’s forests will be lost within 40 years if the deforestation rate remains at the current level.

Haja Nirina Rabezatovo grew up in a modest family in Ambatondrazaka, a village far from the Capital Antananarivo. He experienced firsthand the ongoing deforestation and its impacts. It has resulted in the loss of habitats for unique species, an increase in carbon dioxide emissions, and soil erosion. The country has become more vulnerable to droughts, and cyclones. In 2017, when Rabezatovo was 21 years old, he decided to play his part in fighting these challenges. He used all his savings to co-found TourDAlaotra, a social enterprise specialising in sustainable agritourism and local development.

This is through the reforestation of Moringa Oleifera tree for the use of its nutritious leaves as food, in organic farming as a pest repellent and as organic fertiliser. TourDAlaotra stands for ‘Sustainable Tourism and Agriculture Alaotra’. “We are solving an environmental problem to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and improve agriculture,” he said. The Moringa Tree, often referred to as the “Tree of Life”, has scientifically proven medicinal values. It is reputedly one of the most nutritional plants on the planet and an integral part of the traditional Malagasy cuisine. Its leaves have been used as an accompaniment to rice in Madagascar for more than three centuries.

TourDAlaotra works with villagers to plant thousands of seedlings of this tree species in Madagascar forests. Rabezatovo says they help reduce the emission of carbon dioxide through the reforestation of Moringa Oleifera and mitigate the impact of climate change by reducing poor nutrition through the sustainable exploitation of Moringa leaves, which are rich in nutrients. The company produces food supplements and other products from the tree.

Rabezatovo estimates the company has so far sold nutritious Moringa products to 180,000 people for improved health. Specifically, the company uses Moringa Oleifera leaves as a base ingredient in biscuits, which are highly nutritious for children. This boosts the health of children who lack a balanced diet. It has three permanent employees and 15 casual workers, all less than 30 years old. “Our vision is to be the best social enterprise actor of sustainable development in Madagascar before 2030. We dream of a Madagascar, currently very vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change to a resilient Madagascar and adapted to cope with cyclones, drought, famine,” he said. However, the company faces challenges in its desire to do more.

“Since 2020, my company and I have had our share of hardships. With Covid-19, TourDAlaotra received a massive blow. After the flood that hit the Alaotra area, 75% of my company’s rice cultivation was devastated, then the lack of rainfall destroyed 83% of the agriculture – because yes, Madagascar is not only the first country in Africa to be vulnerable to cyclones and floods but also vulnerable to climate change,” he recently wrote on a blog run by the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme).

He said they are already beginning to overcome those setbacks. In 2022 His company was chosen to take part in the Adaptation & Resilience ClimAccelerator, an Africa-wide accelerator programme for start-ups to innovate, catalyse and scale the potential of their climate solutions. The project is initiated by the climate innovation organisation EIT Climate-KIC, and funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Ireland (Irish Aid). All the 16 start-ups that were selected had demonstrated solutions that address physical climate risks or build the resilience of communities. Kenyan sustainability consulting company KCIC Consulting Limited (KCK) and Senegalese based enterprise support organization Concree SAS implemented the programme. The selected startups received tailored business coaching, professional guidance on finance, support defining the climate impact potential of their solution and preparation for future investment opportunities. Rabezatovo said his company benefited immensely.

“The program gave us the opportunity to develop our business. In terms of production, we started with one hectare, then five and we are currently working on six hectares of land. This means we have been able to improve our production,” he explained. He added: “The biggest advantage is the capacity building and also there is access to partners because there are several partners that we have been given to work with. The last, which is not the least, is to be able to acquire financing of 2,500 Euro.”

He said they also learnt how to fundraise. “The last time we were trained on pitching, yes, learning how to raise financing is very good.” Rabezatovo said he is not just interested in growing his business but wants it to grow in a sustainable way. He believes the networks the accelerator programme exposed him to will help expand his company to mainland Africa. “We will need more networking to be able to sell our products not only here in Madagascar, but the whole African continent, which faces the same problems as Madagascar. So apart from the financing, apart from the capacity building, we will also need more networking to sell our product everywhere,” he said.