Impact Journalism Day 2016

Adventures of the Madagascan Batman

In the space of 10 years, Erick Rajaonary has created a thriving organic fertilizer empire thanks to bat droppings.

Guano being dried in Madagascan production plants.
Narindra Raharijaona

An accountant by training, Erick Rajaonary became an entrepreneur industrialist completely by chance.

“It all began with a conversation I had with my friends, when we were talking about guano and its potential to make Madagascar a vital part of the fertilizer market,” the native Madagascan recalls.

At the time, Rajaonary knew next to nothing about agriculture, and even less about creating fertilizers. However, in the space of 10 years, as the owner of Guanomad he has become a recognized and accepted figure in the sector.

What’s more, his company is fairly unique in its use of guano – or bat droppings – as an organic base for the fertilizer, earning Rajaonary the nickname “Batman” and winning his firm the Africa Entrepreneurship Award in 2013.

The key to Rajaonary’s success can be attributed to the tiny, vital creatures at the heart of his fertilizer company – a creature that is found in abundance throughout Madagascar, but is rarely loved or appreciated.

“When people think of bats, they normally see them as gross, smelly creatures, or as something straight out of a Dracula film,” says Dr. Steven M. Goodman, author of the guidebook “The Bats of Madagascar.”

Beyond these culturally imbued preconceptions, the Madagascan bats – divided into the “ramanavy” insectivorous species and the “fanihy” fruit-eaters – are hunted for their meat, to the point of becoming endangered.

“Whatever our perception of these creatures, they constitute an essential part of the overall forest ecosystem and the pollination cycle of the baobab,” adds Goodman, referring to the native African fruit-bearing tree.

Droppings, limestone, dead things

Above and beyond their ecological role, the 44 bat species in Madagascar also provide the raw material used in fertilizer production: the excrement known as guano.

The droppings mix with the limestone found in caves where the bats take refuge, also combining with the bodies of dead animals to form a rich mixture with huge future potential.

By allowing this substance to mineralize over a period of some 20 to 30 years, it takes on incredible fertilizing properties. This natural mixture becomes rich in minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium and zinc, which are necessary ingredients in the growth and healthy development of plants.

The fertilizing properties of bat guano have been used by Madagascan riverside villages since the 1920s. However, it was only in 2006, with the launch of Rajaonary’s company, that this source was made accessible on a larger scale.

After that initial lightbulb conversation with friends, Rajaonary decided to visit some caves in the south of the country. It was there he discovered firsthand the potential lying disused and hidden under the Madagascan earth. In one cave alone, Rajaonary says he saw “3,000 to 4,000 tons of guano that no one had ever managed to extract.”

He made his decision: He would become the first Madagascan businessman to tap into this raw material and commercialize it, both on a national and international scale. With an initial $225,000 financial injection – drawn from savings and bank loans – he launched Guanomad.

The business expanded rapidly. Any initial apprehensions soon faded and the fertilizer product made its market breakthrough: In the space of two years, the firm’s guano processing plant increased its production fortyfold.

The Madagascan government’s green revolution program was also a key factor, helping Guanomad go from producing 300 tons of fertilizer in 2006 to a whopping 13,000 tons by 2008. The product more or less sold itself, being an organic fertilizer that helps protect the quality of the soil while proving environmentally friendly.

Helping suffering farmers

A series of 120 caves, with a rich reserve of 400,000 tons of guano, lay at the firm’s feet in Madagascar. The country also became its primary marketplace, with around 75 percent of the population of nearly 23 million people living in rural areas, resulting in a high dependency on agriculture.

However, startling success like this couldn’t last forever, and the Malagasy political crisis that occurred between 2009 and 2013 had its effects on the market, throwing a metaphorical wrench in the Guanomad works.

To try and maintain its place in the market, Guanomad decided to lend the suffering farmers a hand by granting loans, which facilitated their continued use of the firm’s products. With the cooperation of a couple of farming associations and NGOs, Guanomad decided to launch projects for the farmers that required the distribution of seeds and farming materials.

Through this process, the “Batman” still managed to promote his products, while also providing support for the farming community.

Simultaneously, the company managed to launch its products on the international market. It now sells around 50 percent of its goods across Europe, North America and throughout Africa.

In 2010, Guanomad obtained Ecocert certification, which confirms the “organic” nature of its products. This lets the company access a demanding market, which has so far been dominated by South American guano.

“Our products do not contain any additional chemicals,” says Narinda Raharijaona, director of Guanomad’s communications and marketing, confirming its organic qualities.

Guanomad also manages to turn any potential environmental or sociocultural constraints to its own advantage. “Before extracting any guano from a cave that’s listed as a sacred place for the riverside communities, we make sure we ask the villagers for permission,” explains Rajaonary.

And where the environment is concerned, the company takes all necessary steps to limit damage to the bats’ natural habitat by its mining operations. And on an economic front, the company is able to provide rebates to the various communities situated close to where they extract the material, while also providing employment to village members in these areas.

Once it has been extracted from the caves, the guano is taken to the production plant, where it is then dried, mixed, crushed and formed into pellets. If it’s going to be sold in stick form, the pellets are then dried again. However, if it’s being sold in powder or pellet form, the material undergoes a thermal treatment, which is then recooled prior to being packaged and distributed.

The guano is sold through one of the firm’s 250 points of sale across Madagascar, or on the international market. Today, Guanomad provides seven different types of guano-based products, adapted to various types of agricultural needs – from material for organic farms, to gardens, and even to fruit tree plantations.

This article first appeared in L’Express de Madagascar.