Do Malagasy farmers need Internet?

This blog was authored by Claudia Knobloch and originally posted on Energize the BoP.

I am using one of our car breakdowns to catch up with the blog. We are already on our way back from Mahajanga to Tana – and somehow our car is overheating all the time. The nice weather has its drawbacks!

Third focus group in the North

Last Friday, we held a focus group in a village next to Port Bergé. We chose the village by change, to be honest. We tried to find a NGO to organize us a focus group but somehow all the options did not work out. Therefore we asked the local restaurant owner in Port Bergé which off-grid village close by he would suggest for our mission. He told us to go to AMPOMBIBITIKA, 7 kilometers from the town. In order to motivate people to participate in our discussion, we talked to the chef de fokontany who was quite happy to help us with the organization of the focus group. He even suggested to use his office for the event.

As expected, or after the experience the day before, as feared, a lot of people turned up. There is not a lot to do in these villages – apart from the daily work of course – therefore every distraction and everything new causes a lot of attention. We started with the questions about their village, went on to asking them what they thought about HERi and finally did some “sorting” to select some people for smaller group discussions. We asked people to gather in groups according to their age, profession, education, electricity use and number of household members. Through this, we could pick a very balanced focus group of 16 persons. After a round of “How do you spend your day” and “Where do you get aour energy from?” we invited the whole group and all the children to a round of coke and cookies – a big success! It is always interesting to see that the empty bottles are even more wanted than the content.

Off to the sea side for more meetings and some contemplation

After a short debrief, we set off to Mahajanga. We were looking forward to meet Florian Winckler who runs the Jatropha and Moringa plantations of GEXSI and a German Elfie Littmann who owns a solar installation business in the city on the West coast of Madagascar. Arriving in Mahajanga felt like starting a holiday. The town is situated on the sea and the street along the sea is the favourite spot of all its inhabitants. At night, the “Jardin d’amour” (built by a French man with the beautiful name Amour) is the place to be and have some grilled fish and papaya salad. On Sunday, we spend some hours on the beach and swam in the warm canal of Mozambique. Life can be so wonderful!

Visit to inclusive agro project

Apart from enjoying the nice sides of Mahajanga, we were really curious to learn about the new agricultural and reforestation projects GEXSI is already running and starting in the region and to visit the plantation we have heard so much about. They are implementing some “inclusive business models” through planting Moringa with the help of small holders. Now they are adding some agroforst projects that enable farmers to growth cash crops like indigo between newly planted trees.

Difficult return of investment and a second though on our offerings

The meetings of Monday with Dr. Jutta Nambena and solar entrepreneur Elfie Littmann made two major challenges very clear: How to finance and to get back the investment for a kiosk and what kind of products and services to offer.

Jutta has worked in Madgascar many years now in different developement projects and is the founder of FFA an NGO which support women mainly in agricultural concerns (FFA stands for “Fanatsarana ny Fari-piainana eny Ambanivohitra” which means “improvement of rural living standards”).

She confirmed us in our observation that there is a big need for energy in the rural context – mainly for charing phones, batteries for radios and mayby for charing solar lanterns. She was very sceptical about the ides to offer internet to farmers because none of them has ever heard of a computer or the Internet – a lot of them can hardly read and write.That is a different story when we talk about the bigger communities that have a big market and a lot of students or the National Parks. Especially in the National Parks, Internet would be a great asset for expample for all the international researcher that work their. That is not a BoP approach but it might be a good way to get short turn revenues. We should look closer into the areas around the parks!

We also talked to Jutta about the standing fo microfinance institutions in Madagascar. She told us that indeed, they charge too much interest. But on the other hand, there are a lot of informal lending mechanism in place in rural Madagascar. Ususally the shop owner or the major is the one who lends money to the people – at very high interest rates. And: if people can not pay back the loan, this person takes the land and the houses. There are villages in Mada owned by one person. Of course, this person is not interested in sharing the market with MFIs. The bad image might be bad PR from that side as well. We will talk to the Aga Khan Foundation next week and see for ourselves!

Elfie Littmann who set up her solar company in 2004 was particularly skeptical about getting the investment into the kiosks back. From her experience, customers in Madagascar pay their bills but she is mainly selling stoves and solar home systems to poorer clients. These products cost about 30 Euro – therefore she can offer the sell them through hire-purchase and does not need any further financing. But an investment around 10,000 to 15,000 Euro is in her view – and we heard this a couple of times now – an amount that could never be paid back due to political and economic instability and the low purchasing power. No small entrepreneur wants to take the risk of investing that much over the next ten years – a far too long horizon for a Malagasy.

Well, we finally arrived safely in Tana after a 14 hours car drive and 600 km of winding roads. Tomorrow will be a new day in the country side around Tana, on Thursday we will go to the slums in Tana and on Friday we will fly to St. Augustin – some busy days ahead of us!

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