Trade Forum Features

Empowering Madagascan women with environmental know-how

7 March 2016
ITC News
Support for women’s associations in Madagascar to enhance raffia production is also helping the conservation of biodiversity in the country

It is somewhat ironic that with more than 3 billion people, the rural poor, who have very little in the way of personal resources, constitute the largest group of natural resource managers. Within this group, women have a key role in sourcing natural resources as farmers and household providers. They are responsible for harvesting, collecting of fuel and water and cultivating subsistence crops.

Despite providing in large measure for their family needs, women are often denied natural resource governance functions within their communities. By contrast, men are dominating governing roles such as commercializing land, water, plants and animals and thus generating income for their community.
Due to degradation of natural resources caused by climate change and biodiversity loss, women are dedicating an increasing amount of time to sourcing natural resources, such as walking longer distances for collecting fuelwood and water and harvesting wild plants.

However, women can act as effective agents of change in relation to the conservation of biodiversity as well as climate change mitigation and adaptation. Their role as stewards of natural and household resources positions them well to advocate climate-smart strategies to build resilient communities.

Madagascar makes a good example. According to the World Bank, two-thirds of the country’s population is living in rural areas. With more than 40 protected areas accounting for around 2 million hectares of land, the livelihoods of the majority of rural people depend on sourcing natural resources from the buffer zones surrounding those areas.


Madagascar’s forests are biodiversity hotspots, home to species found nowhere else. At the same time, the country faces stern development challenges: high poverty rates, population growth and slow economic development. Its unique forest habitats face grave threats from slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging, exacerbating the fallout from changing temperature and rainfall patterns.
Fibres from raffia palms have long been used for making traditional handicrafts, twine, rope and clothing. More recently, woven hats and bags made from raffia have started to find favour in the international fashion industry. However, this has not yet translated into a payoff for the women’s cooperatives that typically process raffia and sell it on to traders as raffia yields have been battered by deforestation and climate change.


The International Trade Centre (ITC) is working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to build climate resilience, improve sustainability practices and raise incomes in communities reliant on raffia for their livelihoods.
As yields decline the women’s associations must improve harvesting practices and upgrade processing and quality to meet the exacting standards of international buyers. To maximize the prices they receive, they need to complement increased productivity with improved product design and direct sales to international buyers.

In areas surrounding the WCS-managed Makira National Park, ITC is training women’s associations on climate-change adaptation and climate-smart raffia harvesting and processing techniques as well as organizational management.

By increasing incomes for households near the park, one of the country’s largest remaining mid-elevation tropical forests, the programme aims to reduce dependence on unsustainable exploitation of natural resources while engaging local communities as collaborative managers in the 372,000-hectare park’s conservation activities.
ITC and WCS conducted training workshops in 2015 for around 200 women from six women’s associations in the Makira area, on raffia harvesting, sorting, drying, tanning, quality improvements, product design and planting aimed at ensuring climate resilience and long-term profitability.

This capacity building was implemented in two stages. First, 24 women representing six individual federations in total were equipped to train fellow association members in the long run. Next, week-long training workshops were held in multiple villages for some 180 women from the six associations.
‘During the training, we learnt a lot about raffia and we are now crafting betterquality items,’ said Florine Zafijery, a member of one of the associations benefitting from the project.

As a result of the workshops the women in the buffer zones of Makira Park are now following more sustainable techniques of raffia sourcing. For instance, they learned to source raffia leaves only during the dry season. Furthermore, the associations learned to harvest leaves of a minimum length of 120 centimetres to reach the maximum length. They were also trained in reforestation techniques to ensure long-term raffia sustainability.
The programme’s training activities will expand in 2016 to cover eight additional women’s associations in the Makira Park area, bringing the total number of beneficiaries to 450. Furthermore, two women from each of the participating groups will receive intensive training on product design and manufacture for the international market, enabling them to train their peers with the goal of better equipping the associations to sell value-added products.

For its part ITC will build on its market- connecting work to create a network of potential raffia purchasers. Together with WCS, ITC will help the associations enhance their legal status so they can more easily strike contracts with international buyers. ITC will also assist the associations in leveraging its Blue Number initiative, a global online network and tracking system for farms and agro-industry, to garner increased visibility on the raffia value chain.


The raffia project is the first step in broader collaboration between ITC and Madagascar’s trade and environment ministries to promote exports of sustainable natural resources to bolster rural livelihoods and while conserving biodiversity.
Empowering rural women with environmental knowledge and market intelligence is the key to giving them a voice in community based natural resource management. It enables them to source, manage and trade their produce locally and internationally, thus generating additional income for their communities and improving livelihoods.