Global farmers go batty for fertilizer

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR -- Worldwide interest in organic farming has made an unlikely winner of an African startup whose main product is bat poo.
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Written by Zaheer Cassim on

ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR -- Erick Rajaonary was born in Madagascar, but then lived in France as a student and an accountant. In 1998, he moved back to his birth country, and several years later, he heard an interesting tip: you could collect bat excrement, called guano, and sell it as organic fertilizer.

Most people would have laughed off the idea, but Rajaonary looked at the numbers in southern Madagascar, which was full of bat caves, and the balance sheet looked promising. He hired a team of locals to excavate and transport bat dung to the capital city, Antananarivo -- and the bat poo fertilizer company Guanomad was born.

In the company’s first year of business, it sold 400 tons of compost. Two years later it was producing over 13,000 tons of fertilizer. Today, this small and unlikely winner in the rising global interest in organic farming owns 120 caves holding roughly 350,000 to 400,000 tons of guano in southern Madagascar, and it exports to Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean islands. Last year, it was the surprise winner at last year's Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship (AAE), one of the continent’s most prestigious business awards.

It hasn’t been an easy road to success: a 2009 military coup ended all international financial support and foreign investment in Madagascar and other countries imposed a ban on all Malagasy imports (it was finally lifted in 2010). But the product has succeeded because it’s 100 percent environmentally friendly, the “manufacturing” cost – collection, packaging and distribution – is a tenth of other fertilizers’, and bat poo yields amazing results for farmers. 

"Our product is wholly organic. We don't produce chemical fertilizer. It has good effect for the soil, there is no nitrification of waterways, and it's a healthy product," said Mirana Rakotovelo, director of marketing and communication.

Over the years, the company has made a real impact not only locally, but in other continents as well. More than the half of the fertilizer goes to Africa, the rest is sent to Europe explained Rakotovelo.

With the rise of organic farming in Europe, Guanomad has seen steady growth in this region and has opened local partnerships with companies in France and Luxembourg to keep up with demand.  

Private equity consultant Nonni Hlongwane spent several years focusing on the food industry. She was one of the African Leadership network due diligence leaders that was tasked into looking at Guanomad for last year’s AAE. For her, the main stand out quality that sets this product apart is that it’s cheap.

“Its production cost is, for me, its distinctive advantage,” she said. “Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, most countries produce fertilizer from natural gas. They then go through a lengthy and expensive process to produce [industry standard] fertilizer. This process is 10 times the cost of Guanomad.”

According to the World Food Programme (WFO) the chronic malnutrition rate in Madagascar is the sixth-highest in the world. Poor weather conditions have left four million Madagascans without food this year and if conditions don’t improve, the WFO estimates another nine million people will face the same fate. 

Rajaonary believes his product can help tackle this problem by giving free bags of Guanomad to local farmers and educating them on how to best use the product. 

In June of last year, these free bags were distributed to a garden center in the north of the country and used in a competition. Ialu Raharijaona, owns the establishment. He gave 51 participants each 500 kilograms of Guanomad compost. The rules of the game were simple. The person to grow the most rice wins. With conventional fertilizers a farmer would grown, on average, two to three tons. The winner grew 10 tons of rice. 

"[Guanomad's] good," said Rajarijaona, whose first language is Malagasy. "Is good results especially for the man who uses small farming."

Photo: Courtesy of the African Leadership Network

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com


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