Madagascar: A handicraft scene on the World map

Creatives across the globe are enraptured by the Red Island, and for good reason: a rising economic pillar, Madagascar’s creative industry provides over two million jobs and contributes to 8% of local GDP.

These creative enterprises are often textile-focused and affiliated to NGOs.

“When I take part in trade fairs, the people I meet associate Madagascar craftsmanship with exceptional quality and ethical practices,” says Shirley Dalais of Karina International, a Mauritian company specialising in the manufacture of children’s clothing and ladieswear, operating in Madagascar since 1999.

Karina has a canteen which feeds all her employees for lunch, a breastfeeding room so working mothers can take care of their children, an in-house doctor which provides free medicine. Safe spaces aside, Shirley also wanted to give Malagasy culture pride of place in her childrenswear label, Tia & Aïna (‘love life’ in Malagasy). Each piece exhibits local savoir-faire in its intricate embroidery patterns and fabric, and every collection comes with a tale, which follows the adventures of Tia and Aïna as they travel around Madagascar.

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A simple internet search yields countless, verified success stories. Tsara, for instance, is a creative project set up in 2014 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, which aims at engaging rural women and involve them in sustainable trade. Today, Tsara employs over a thousand women and has its own masters programme. The kind of security afforded by international organisations such as Tsara means that artisans are better protected against contraband; plus, these enterprises often employ women from rural areas, who due to ancestral practices are often banned from owning land. They turn their exquisite skill in embroidery and craftsmanship into revenue, and are thriving. Another fantastic story melding textiles, empowerment and environmental conservation is that of SEPALI, the Madagascar Organization of Silk Workers. The NGO partnered with the US Conservation through Poverty Alleviation organisation (CPALI), and together, they help local farmers produce artisanal silk from endemic moths. They operate in the Makira Protected Area: the communities residing nearby were left impoverished once the park came to existence, since they could no longer hunt in the area. SEPALI/CPALI ensure that these communities make between $60-$200 per head through sustainable silk farming. Locals care for the silkworms on trees, plant trees, produce silk and eat protein-rich chrysalids. With the growing demand for Malagasy wildsilk on the world market, SEPALI’s future is undoubtedly bright.

Major cities across Europe and America now hold trade fairs of local arts and handicrafts, and Malagasy artisans have garnered particular attention. A New York Times’ piece this year featured Marie Alexandrine Rasoanantenaina, who enraptured visitors with her ornate vetiver baskets and rugs in the International Folk Art Market. Rasoanantenaina started by making underwear from the fabric scraps of her grandmother’s table. Today, she creates rugs, mats, baskets and totes, all fashioned from Malagasy flora, employs about thirty women and has her own NGO dedicated to promoting local handicraft. A brilliant example of Malagasy excellence, like so many of her fellow artisans.

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The Ethical Traveller’s Journey

First, head to family-run businesses such as Miniature Mamy in Antsirabe. Run by Mr. and Mrs. Rajamason, the business creates small sculptures using recycled materials and Zebu horn. Both kinds of handicraft are a direct product of Madagascar’s economic conditions: recycling is crucial in the Red Island (though no industry per se exists) because importing new materials costs a fortune; the Zebu is reared for meat, and no part of the animal goes to waste – the horn itself is stripped of its soft tissue, which is then used as fertilizer, feed, and powder for traditional medicine.

Then, visit and reside in different villages. A hundred kilometres south of Antsirabe lies Ambositra and its 25,000-strong Zafimaniry community, whose woodcrafting knowledge is inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. All that they touch is ornamented, in codified geometric patterns which reflect the community members’ roles, as well as their Austronesian and Arab influences. The Zafimaniry use twenty different species of endemic trees, and each bark has its exact purpose. Houses and tombs are built entirely with traditional mortise and tenon joints, without the use of nails or other metal fittings.

In the towns of Betioky and Ampanihy you’ll find the Mahafaly community, renowned for their tombs of coloured stones and carved wooden posts. The Betsileo community of southern-central Madagascar produces ornamental cloths of very finely woven raffia and has become specialists in the production of coloured straw hats. The Antemoro people, of Manakara and Farafangana, were the first and, for a long time, the only community who knew how to write texts and the first to render the Malagasy language into writing. They produce paper from the bark of wild mulberry trees – make sure to acquire their bookmarks, crafted from the bark and freshly pressed flowers. Make sure to stop by Ampanihy and marvel at the villagers’ handmade mohair carpets, which count over 70,000 knots per square metre.

During your travels you’ll probably search for a tablecloth to take home, but remember the history and the sweat behind the pristine linen. High-quality cotton, raffia and silk were and still are cornerstones of Malagasy social and ethnic identity. Textiles play a crucial role in statecraft and metaphysical belief systems: linen is offered to rulers, ancestors and spirits in return for blessings, a physical manifestation of ‘hasina’, the sacred force that strengthens human relationships. The cloth in your hands has history.