The price of rice, the staple food in Madagascar, has doubled in the past two years, forcing residents in the capital, Antananarivo, to halve their consumption. "At almost 2,000 ariary (US$1) a kilogramme, rice has become a luxury item," Tiana Randrianirina, a rice seller at the main market in the capital, told IRIN.
"This is terrible for the Malagasy people - everyone is affected, especially those on minimum wage, or who have lost their jobs in the crisis. We wait and hope for a change from the government soon, so the crisis can end," Randrianirina said.
L'Observatoire du Riz, a state-funded organization that monitors the price of rice, estimates that it has almost doubled since early 2009. Many of Antananarivo’s about 1.5 million residents have adopted coping strategies like skipping breakfast, or eating manioc or maize.
"We've always been poor, but rice has increased so much that before a 'kapoaka' [a 250g serving] was for one person, and now it is half that," Claudine Rasoanandrsana, a mother of three who sells vanilla and spices to tourists on the streets of Antananarivo.
In the 1970s Madagascar was a rice exporter but has since become a rice importer, a consequence of outdated farming methods and poor infrastructure.
Rice inflation has tracked the country's political instability, which began with protests against President Marc Ravalomanana in January 2009 and led to Andry Rajoelina assuming power in March 2009, with the backing of the military.
The "illegal' transfer of power resulted in the African Union imposing sanctions and donor countries suspending all but emergency assistance to the donor-dependent state.
The US also suspended the country from its preferential trade agreement, the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), which permits some African states to export goods duty-free to the US. AGOA created around 50,000 jobs and provided work to a further 100,000 people.
The upward pressure on the cost of rice is also being fuelled by a global rise in food prices and two years of a slowing economy in one of the world's poorest countries.
"Food prices in Madagascar can affect a household a lot. One Malagasy can consume 136 kilograms of rice per year and food accounts for 75 percent of a household's budget," Michael Rakotonirina, a monetization specialist for the development arm of Land O Lakes International, a US-based food company in Madagascar, said.
Rajoelina's government fixed the rice price at 1,180 ariary (US$0.59) a kilogram in early January 2011 and waived duties and taxes on imports, but according to local media reports this resulted in the staple becoming either depleted or unavailable.
On 11 February, trade minister Dominique Razaka said 10,000 tons of rice were imported under price-fixing measures, and 32,000 tons were expected to arrive at the eastern port of Tamatave by the end of February to help ease price pressures on rice until the end of the lean season in April.
Gerard Ravelomanantsoa, Director of the Institute of National Statistics, said the results of a survey between June and October 2010 showed poverty had increased from 68.7 percent to 76.6 percent since 2005.
About two-thirds of Madagascar’s around 20 million people are subsistence farmers, with the poorest living in the rural areas of Sava, a vanilla growing region in the northeast that was struck by Cyclone Bingiza on 14 February 2011. Other regions suffering severe poverty were Vatovavy Fitovinany, Atsimo Andrefana, Androy, and Anosy.
"Two successive seasons of drought have forced many vulnerable households in the south to sell their personal effects. These families have been particularly hard hit by the seasonal increase in the price of staple foods, which has pushed many to sell their livestock to afford those foods, driving down livestock prices. These families are counting on a good harvest next month to pull them through," Thomas Gibb, Food and Disaster Relief Officer for USAID's Madagascar office, told IRIN.
Cyclones are an annual event, but their frequency and severity differs from year to year. The National Office for Natural Disasters Preparedness (BNGRC) has warned of flooding in the south, while the country's breadbasket region, Analamanga, is expected to receive reduced rainfall.
"How much Madagascar produces is linked to the weather, and the cyclone season. In 2008 it [Madagascar] produced 3.6 million tons of rice, but the problem is that the population… [expands] while the production methods do not," Rakotonirina said.
A rice development expert in Madagascar, who declined to be named, told IRIN the country's economic insecurity and lack of resources made it difficult to promote new cultivation methods, such as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), to farmers.
SRI, which has both supporters and detractors, suggests that rice fields be kept moist rather than permanently saturated, with a greater space left between plants to allow the leaves to optimize photosynthesis, and that plants be transplanted at a younger age, when they were less than 15 days old.
The rice expert estimated that SRI could be tried on 900,000 hectares of land, and could double or triple the yield, but that investment first be made to improve infrastructure such as roads and other facilities.
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