Workers from Rova Caviar Madagascar grade and analyse the caviar extracted from a sturgeon, at the Acipenser factory in Mantasoa, Madagascar, June 4 2019. Picture: AFP/ MAMYRAEL
Workers from Rova Caviar Madagascar grade and analyse the caviar extracted from a sturgeon, at the Acipenser factory in Mantasoa, Madagascar, June 4 2019. Picture: AFP/ MAMYRAEL

Mantasoa, Madagascar — Renowned for its unique wildlife and vanilla production, Madagascar has a new claim to fame — the island 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,” says Delphyne Dabezies, the head of Rova Caviar, 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 producer in Africa and the Indian Ocean.”

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, though producers in the Caspian Sea still boast the most prized caviar, from Beluga sturgeon.

Madagascar has an exceptional environment that produces rare crops such as cocoa, vanilla, organic shrimp and lychees. We thought we could add caviar.
Delphyne Dabezies

In 2019 Madagascar produced a ton of caviar in a world market of about 340 tons a year. But its ambitious promoters hope to soon increase production to five tons. 

The unusual plan is the brainchild of Dabezies, her husband Christophe and their 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 unfertilised caviar roe are kept in Lake Mantasoa, perched at an altitude of 1,400m east of the capital Antananarivo. Training the staff has been a major part of the project.

“Caviar professionals have come from abroad,” said Ianja Rajaobelina, now assistant director of the production plant, which employs 300 people. "“I had to learn everything on the job.”

Staff member Say Sahemsa said: “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.”

Sturgeon are imported from Russia in the form of fertilised eggs, which hatch in a special nursery facility in Mantasoa. When they reach 7g,  they are moved to freshwater ponds, and then into large cages in the lake when they weigh 500g.

At 1.5kg, the males are killed and only the females are kept on until their eggs are ready.

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.

When the final product is judged to be up to standard, it is sold to high-end shops and restaurants on the island and to its neighbours Mauritius, Seychelles and Reunion. Its price is a relative bargain at $144 per 100g, far cheaper than in Europe.

According to Guinness World Records, a kilogram of the costliest caviar from albino sturgeon off the coast of Iran regularly fetches over $25,000.

AFP