Youth TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Andriankoto Ratozamanana

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Andriankoto Ratozamanana is reforesting his native Madagascar with endemic species, helping people produce essential oils and other sustainable products. A long-time ex-pat in France blogging about the beauties of his homeland, Andriankoto was so inspired by TEDAfrica 2007 that a month later he packed his bags and moved home. He’s now growing a group of politically minded-bloggers, developing sustainable businesses, and nurturing an enthusiastic TEDx community.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Andriankoto asks:

What features, strategies, or marketing would help Internet-based companies in Africa better integrate with international markets?

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Tell us about the different projects you’re working on.

I help run two NGOs, and I’m working on a social enterprise e-commerce project.

The first NGO is Foko, which means “tribe” in the Malagasy language. It’s the first project I started when I came back to Madagascar in 2007. Foko teaches people here in Antananarivo how to blog. When we started, there were few bloggers, but we had 500 bloggers by 2009, which was very important for Madagascar that year. When we had political trouble here in 2009, our bloggers brought the information to the international community. Our journalists didn’t have a good presence on the Internet. Foko showed the international community exactly what was happening in Madagascar. That was a really important thing.

Andriankoto (far right) and his Foko bloggers.

Now Foko is moving from these political things to issues about improving people’s lives. Foko bloggers write about the environment, health care, women’s empowerment, and other things. The 2009 political situation brought poverty and many people lost jobs. Now we have to focus on how people can improve their lives, under the new crazy politicians in Madagascar.

Vakanala, which means “Pearls of Forest” in Malagasy, is my other NGO. It’s a product of all my experience from my studies, blogging, and everything I care most about. This is my main baby, Vakanala. With Vakanala we are helping one village in the south of Madagascar, offering professional environmental experience. The village asked us to come to protect their forest. So the pilot site is there in the Manambolo Forests. Our ultimate goal is to implement a new, sustainable economic paradigm in the area.

Vakanala does fundraising to sponsor tree planting. We are going to provide seeds to people, the people help the seeds grow, and we help the people to bring the product to the market. So that’s the economic vision for Vakanala. Over 2,500 trees have already been sponsored, but the money is not enough yet to really start the project. This will eventually be a really good forest management and economic improvement project.

Megaseeds is Vakanala’s big e-commerce window. Megaseeds and Vakanala are based on the same concept: promoting environmentally and economically sustainable agriculture. The difference is, we are looking for investors for Megaseeds, and we are looking for funders for Vakanala. Unfortunately, we are having trouble establishing a good electronic payment system for Megaseeds. We are still waiting to launch because of this payment problem.

How will these plants and trees provide for people’s livelihoods?

There is a tree named Ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora). It’s endemic to Madagascar, meaning it exists only on the island. And we make essential oil from its leaves. We just take the leaves and steam them, without cutting the trees. One drop of essential oil from this tree is worth one dollar. Ravintsara is great for reducing pain and headaches. It’s excellent for colds and the flu, because it is a decongestant, helping to clear the sinuses, is an anti-inflammatory, and more. We are planting it so we can make Madagascar rich, and people can make a living while we are saving the environment. That’s why we chose this special tree. It’s an evergreen that can be planted all over the country, and it’s only in Madagascar. It’s like a monopoly that God gave to the country.
In Madagascar there are 1,300 species of plants that exist only in the country. This is just one plant that can show people that we can fight poverty just by planting trees.
At the beginning, the idea was just to grow endemic species of plants of Madagascar, make some essential oils from the plants, and then sell the essential oil. That’s the original business plan of it, the commerce we want to start this year.

But for the last three years we have also been planting trees for other environmental issues. Now some of the trees are ready. Now the farmers have many products — different even than the one that we had planned. So I’m trying to find a commercial venue for the products, to improve the living of the farmers that are working with us.

The problem of conservation in Madagascar is that the people need a way to earn money, to improve their life. There is a very precious wood, rosewood, in Madagascar, that has no legal protection in the country. The rich countries come to Madagascar and they buy all the timber, especially rosewood. Many people in Madagascar are very poor, and this is an easy way to make money. They cut down these trees, which are very, very old, and very precious for the country and to the environment.

So the issue of conservation is a part of fighting poverty. That’s why we’re doing this.

You started all of these projects after becoming a TED Fellow in 2007. Tell us about your life before that.

I was born in Madagascar and I went to do my studies in France. I lived there for 12 years, and got my major in communications at the university in France.

Before 2007, I was a blogger showing Madagascar’s beauty and asking people to take interest in the beautiful country of Madagascar. I have been working my whole life on communicating what you can find here. Because Madagascar is not only that movie with the lion and the zebra. [Laughs] We also have beautiful people here and we have a culture. We have so many things that many people don’t know.

I blog less now because of microblogging — because of Facebook and Twitter. Also, I do journalism more — I’m a stringer for France 24 and Global Voices as well. Because I’m in the field, they call me and ask me for the news, what’s happening in Madagascar. I don’t work for them every day, but when there are elections, a coup, or something bad happening in Africa — especially in Madagascar — they call me.
But I am really focusing on my projects, and sometimes I write about the projects when I have the opportunity. I hope to get back to blogging when we have a good situation where I have good funding for our project, and we can make a living with our project.

How did the TED Fellowship impact your life?

TED Africa changed my mind about the opportunity you can find here. That was a very, very important conference that changed my life. Even though I wasn’t planning to go back to Madagascar initially, after TEDGlobal Africa, I just took my bag and came back here.

Andriankoto (far right) back home, talking about the TED experience.

When I arrived here, I started to work with an NGO, helping them as a communications officer. And then from there I started my own NGO and doing all my other stuff.

Being a TED Fellow really changed my life. I think it’s more important than a diploma. It’s easier, as a TED Fellow, to walk in an office or ask for help or for jobs. As a TED Fellow, you take more risks, because you have the network backing you. It’s different when someone’s a TED Fellow.

I’ve taken on a lot of things since becoming a TED Fellow, but now, after three years, I know that I have to concentrate on just one or two things and succeed in doing them. I have a lot of focused energy, but just one person can’t do everything.

But there is also another project that I am really involved in. [Laughs] It’s not my project. It’s the 11/11/11 project, and I think it is very important.

What’s the 11/11/11 project?
Danielle Lauren, from Australia, wants people from all over the world, in every country, to contribute music, video, and photography on November 11, 2011 for a time capsule. 11/11/11 happens on the calendar only every hundred years. It’s a global narrative project. I want to help her put Madagascar on the map. Small countries like ours are not often invited to that kind of project. This year is special for this event and I want to ask people to participate because this only happens every hundred years.

I want to put some Malagasy smiles in this time capsule, and tell the next generation about the beauty of the island before it’s gone. I want to leave some good pictures of the country for children to see what Madagascar at 11/11/11 looked like.

A photo from Madagascar for the 11/11/11 project.

There’s a quote from John Fitzgerald Kennedy that’s very important to me. “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.” The political situation in Madagascar is really hard. Who knows what it will look like in another hundred years? Ideas can help sustain communities, though. Ideas are very important for a community – that’s why I like being a part of TED.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

The advice is to keep believing in your idea. Because it’s not easy for an idea to emerge from all the ideas we have around the world. So you have to believe and always prove that your idea is worth spreading. That is simple advice, but I think believing and working hard on your idea is the main thing.

I shouldn’t really give advice, because I haven’t really succeeded yet at what I’m doing. But I think believing is really important.

You’ve certainly had a lot of success with one of your projects: TEDxAntananarivo.

Yes, TEDxAntananarivo is really moving now. We just finished one in November, with an environmental focus. We are doing TEDxAntananarivo as an annual event. It’s become an important part of my calendar. We have many, many people that want to sponsor the event for this year, so we are planning two TEDx’s.

Bloggers at TEDxAntananarivo.

The first one will be in May, and we want to focus on medical issues. We want it to be like TEDMed, and we are looking for speakers or sponsors. We have signed a partnership with a foundation called Akbaraly, based in Madagascar, working to fight cancer in women in Africa.

Madagascar has a lot of medicinal plants that the outside world hasn’t focused on much yet. We have so many of them! So we want to highlight those plants and the people who are working or doing research in this field at our TED event. It should be a very special TEDx.
The second TEDx will be TEDxYouth, in November. Many people here — young and old — are asking me to bring TED to Madagascar, and they are really excited.

I’m the first ever and the only TED Fellow from Madagascar — and want this chance to benefit the country.
TEDxAntananarivo has been very successful, though I’ve been working hard on most of my other projects for three years, without any really important success. But I think they are finally really close to being ready in this year, 2011. That’s my hope. One by one, I hope to bring each project to success and to share that success with TEDsters and people who are working with me.