Rainbow Island: a story of growing ART

In November 2019, two EWB-NL volunteers travelled to Madagascar to research potential project partnerships in the country. One of the volunteers, Suzanne van der Velde, wrote the below article describing her experiences and their findings during the discovery trip. The story is also published on Suzanne’s Linkedin.

A sharp contrast between the deep red soil and fresh green paddy fields. For eight hours we travel through valleys and hollow-like depressions in the central highlands of the Rainbow Island: Madagascar. This region is perfect for cultivating rice, the island’s favorite food and the basic nutrient in every single dish.

Madagascar is among the poorest countries in the world, with poverty rates of over 74% estimated by the World Bank in 2019. As the main contributor to the country’s economy, agriculture plays a key role in making progress with poverty reduction in Madagascar. About 80 percent of the workforce is employed by this sector, which accounts for more than one fourth of GDP.

The agricultural output, however, has been low and volatile in recent years. Climate change threatens the island, which experiences an average of three cyclones per year, damaging ecosystems and infrastructure. It is also impacted by changing rainfall patterns.

Green rice fields valley with few people working in the fields

Travelling to Fianarantsoa, we see the new fields of rice planted at the start of the rainy season, which runs from October to May in these highlands. The other months are dry and rainless, and referred to as “époque dure” or the “hard times” as people often run out of food. The climate during this dry period is, however, perfect to grow an herbal plant known as Artemisia Annua.

This green, aromatic plant is the reason we travelled for two days. For over two years now, I am a volunteer for Engineers without Borders – Netherlands (EWB-NL). This is the first time I traveled abroad to share my technical knowledge and expertise on circular and sustainable practices. We are invited by Bionexx, a company running a small holder farmer program to grow Artemesia Annua and extract the active ingredient artemisinin, or ART for short.

In 1972 ART was discovered as a drug against malaria. Today, the so-called Artemisinin Combined Therapies (ACTs) are approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as effective malaria curing medicines. Bionexx is the only producer of ART in Africa, the continent that suffers around 80% of all cases of malaria world-wide.

Open tent with plants growing in colourful pots

Today, Bionexx works with over 15.000 small holder farmers, who grow Artemisia Annua during dry season as an enhancement of their income. The farmers get a guaranteed price, agreed upon prior to planting giving them income security without post-harvest market fluctuations.

EWB-NL is collaborating with Bionexx to identify ways to become more environmentally friendly, and make the production process more sustainable, safer and circular. My background in bioprocess technology, and the expertise I use in job at Stantec as environmental, waste & resources consultant, turned out to be perfect for this assignment. Together with Alejandro Hahn Menacho, an EWB-NL volunteering process engineer, we followed the complete process, had discussions to fully understand the technical details and mapped the major safety and environmental impacts.

In just a few days, we were able to make plans for five different projects in 2020, ranging from alternative energy resources and revalorization of biomass, to reduction of solvent usage. On our way back on the winding road through the paddy fields, we felt satisfied and excited to see what our collaboration can bring.

EWB-NL is now in the process of analysing the Bionexx production process from the farmer to the client. The objective is to identify improvement opportunities to make the process more sustainable, safer and circular. Learn more and support the project, here.