Madagascar, renowned for its unique wildlife and vanilla production, has a new claim to fame: The nation is Africa’s first and only source of caviar.
The business is an unlikely project in a country beset by grinding poverty, but its owners are determined that luxury foods can play a part in improving Madagascar’s economy.
“A lot of people laughed at us,” Rova Caviar head Delphyne Dabezies said, admitting that the enterprise was a big gamble.
“But we took the time to prove that this is serious. Madagascar caviar is now the only caviar produced in Africa and the Indian Ocean,” Dabezies added.
The island off the coast of Mozambique is still only a minor player in terms of global production, which is dominated by China, Italy and France — although producers in the Caspian Sea still boast the most prized caviar, from Beluga sturgeon.
Last year, Mozambique produced a tonne of caviar in a world market of about 340 tonnes a year.
The plan is the brainchild of Dabezies, husband Christophe and business partner Alexandre Guerrier — all of them French entrepreneurs based in Madagascar.
“At the time, our business in luxury ready-to-wear clothes had become sustainable, and we were seeking to diversify our activities,” Dabezies said. “We are all gourmands, so this idea served our purposes. Madagascar has an exceptional environment that produces rare crops such as cocoa, vanilla, organic shrimp and lychees — we thought we could add caviar.”
The sturgeon that produce unfertilized caviar roe are kept in Lake Mantasoa, perched at an altitude of 1,400m.
Training the staff has been a major part of the project.
“Caviar professionals have come from abroad,” said Ianja Rajaobelina, assistant director of the production plant, which employs 300 people. “I had to learn everything on the job.”
“You have to take care of the spawn and avoid giving them too much or not enough food, to have the lowest possible mortality rate,” staff member Say Sahemsa said.
Sturgeon are imported from Russia in the form of fertilized eggs, which hatch in a special nursery facility in Mantasoa.
When they reach 7 grams, they are moved to freshwater ponds, and then into large cages in the lake when they weigh 500 grams.
At 1.5kg, only the females are kept on until their eggs are ready.
The process demands patience and skill.
The first imported eggs arrived in Mantasoa in 2013, and the first grams of caviar did not go on sale until June 26, 2017, Madagascar’s independence day.
Expert taster Georges Heriniaina Andrianjatovo taps each box with a small hammer to detect any air bubbles, which are removed as soon as possible. Colour, taste and smell are all important.
“A good caviar rolls in the mouth and exudes an odor of fresh butter,” he said.
The precious output is sold to high-end shops and restaurants on the island and to neighbors Mauritius, the Seychelles and Reunion.
Last year, Rova Caviar’s stock sold out in just a few weeks.
Among those impressed is prominent Madagascan chef Lalaina Ravelomanana.
“I prefer to serve it in its natural state, with salmon or oysters on ice,” he said.
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