Malagasy Zebu Field In Madagascar

The Zebu of Madagascar

Livestock brings prosperity and prestige to the Malagasy

What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Madagascar? If you’re a child of the early 2000’s (or had a child in the early 2000’s) you are probably thinking of the cartoon characters Marty, Melman, Alex and Gloria. Or, the wacky penguins. Or the doubly wacky lemur king, Julien.

A few animals that may not come to mind are chickens, goats and cows. Unlike lemurs (or cartoon characters, for that matter), livestock are common throughout Madagascar. These resilient animals, and more importantly the people that care for them, are the reason Land O’Lakes International Development has been working in Madagascar since 2007. This nonprofit organization adapts Land O’Lakes, Inc.’s near century of farming expertise to communities around the world to support local agriculture and help build resilience in tough environments.

Madagascar, an island nation 250 miles off the coast of southeast Africa, is one of the toughest.

Life on the other side of the world

The Malagasy people are amazingly diverse, with early settlers coming from Africa, India, the Middle East and Polynesia. Coupled with 70 years of French colonization, the island is the very definition of “fusion.” In rural areas, most people live in remote villages, without paved roads, running water, electricity or cell coverage. And, most work in farming on very small plots of land—smallholder farmers—to feed their family and earn a living.

Like many of their African neighbors, many Malagasy people struggle with poverty. Of the 25 million people living on the island nation, almost 80 percent live at or below the national poverty level, working hard to earn and survive on less than $2 U.S. a day, according to the World Bank.

And, nowhere is this poverty more evident than in the southwest part of Madagascar, the Atsimo-Adrefana region. Unlike the tropical climate in the north and east, and the wet and cool central highlands, the stony, red desert of the Atsimo-Adrefana region is dusty and dry and seems actively hostile to the prospect of growing crops. The people living there regularly experience drought—and food insecurity—due to lack of rain.

But, the Malagasy people are survivors. And optimists. And creative problem solvers, too.

That’s why they are big fans of livestock.

Improving lives with livestock

For the past two years, Land O’Lakes International Development has been working with the people in southwest Madagascar, implementing the Livestock Expansion and Stability Program (LIVES). The goal of LIVES is to build people’s resilience to their increasingly harsh environment through improved livestock farming. The idea is, if livestock are able to reach their full potential, the people will too.

Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the generosity of the American people, the LIVES team works with smallholder farmers to build their skills in raising and breeding livestock and connect them to vital services, including access to animal health services. On farm trainings combine new information with local knowledge, to enable smallholder farmers to keep and breed chickens, goats and sheep successfully.

Melanie Zanto, a single mother of four, is one of these smallholder farmers. Like many of her neighbors, she’s tried to raise chickens before, but without access to vaccinations, her entire flock died. Trained by LIVES, she now has over 50 birds. And, she’s also been trained to be a Community Livestock Worker, earning additional money by becoming the local go-to resource for animal health services, and better access to vaccinations. As Melanie says, “Before, I did not have enough skill or knowledge to take care of my chickens. Now I do. With this extra money, I can now feed my children.”

Elakomana is another farmer who works hard to support his wife, five children and three grandchildren. He’s been reliant on cassava as a food crop, but says “When there is no rain, the land is completely dry and the cassava won’t grow. Then, we have famine.” Through the LIVES program he’s learned how to raise and breed goats. And, he’s also the president of his village’s savings group, which meets monthly to contribute (about $.17 per member per month) to a savings pool to pay for animal health services such as vaccinations. Through LIVES, Elakomana now has 10 goats, and says, “We have a lot more food. We are full.”

And, in talking with these villagers, it’s obvious there is a pecking order to livestock in Madagascar. Chickens are good; and goats are even better. As for cows, a well-adapted breed known as zebu (found throughout parts of Asia and Africa) are the best.

Why zebu? Banking services are not available in most rural communities. So, zebu—in addition to pulling carts and providing milk and meat—also serve as a form of savings and currency. A living, breathing bank account, if you will. Zebu (and goats and chickens too) are regularly used to trade for other things people need: Seeds and seedlings for planting, food when crops run out, clothing, and children’s school fees.

And, because this zebu wealth walks around on four hooves for all your neighbors to see, the more zebu you have, the more prestige you enjoy. In this life...and in the next.

In Madagascar, there is a tradition that when you die, if you own zebu, some of your zebu die with you too. Most are left to immediate family as their inheritance. Some are traded to cover the expenses for very elaborate burials and tombs, so this “zebu currency” stays in circulation. But some are slaughtered and are served to your neighbors as they celebrate your life and send you off to the afterlife. Your tomb is then decorated with the horns of your zebu along with beautiful, hand-carved zebu totems, to recognize and honor your achievements on earth.

While this may seem curious to us, the reverence for zebu is a time-honored tradition in much of Madagascar and serves a useful purpose in their communities.

And, as the Land O’Lakes International Development team only knows, working alongside people, respecting what they know while adding to local intelligence—it’s the only path to sustainable change. Change that can transform lives for generations to come.