Madagascar, renowned for its unique wildlife and vanilla production, has a new claim to fame – the island nation is Africa’s first and only source of caviar.
The owners of this venture believe 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 produced 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.
Last year Mozambique produced a tonne of caviar in a world market of about 340 tonnes a year.
But its ambitious promoters hope to soon increase production to five tonnes.
The unusual plan is the brainchild of Dabezies, her husband Christophe and their partner Alexandre Guerrier – all 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 1,400 metres 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, wearing white boots, tells AFP: “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 seven grams (a quarter of an ounce), they are moved to freshwater ponds, and then into large cages in the lake when they weigh 500 grams (around a pound).
At 1.5 kilogrammes, the males are killed and only the females are kept on until their eggs are ready.
Colour, taste and smell
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.
The quality of the harvest depends on the dexterity of one man, 23-year-old Gaston Soavan’i Thomas.
Knife in hand, Thomas has no margin for error as he extracts eggs from the entrails of each sturgeon.
“At first, I was afraid to destroy or contaminate the eggs, but now everything comes automatically,” he said.
The eggs are kept in a refrigerated room at 0 degrees Celsius.
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 odour of fresh butter,” he says.
Once it is judged up to standard, the precious output is sold to high-end shops and restaurants on the island and to its neighbours of Mauritius, Seychelles and Reunion.
Its price is a relative bargain – $144 per 100 grams – far cheaper than in Europe.
According to Guinness World Records, a kilogramme of the costliest caviar from albino sturgeon off the coast of Iran regularly fetches over $25,000.
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 says.
Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt
A team of archaeologists had uncovered sarcophagi and the remains of an ancient wall dating back some 4,000 years ago.
Egypt on Saturday opened two ancient pyramids south of the capital Cairo and unveiled a collection of newly found sarcophagi, some containing well-preserved mummies.
Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani told reporters the Bent Pyramid of King Sneferu, the first pharaoh of Egypt’s 4th dynasty, and a nearby pyramid would be reopened to visitors for the first time since 1965.
He also said a team of archaeologists had uncovered sarcophagi and the remains of an ancient wall dating back to the Middle Kingdom some 4,000 years ago.
The finds were made during excavation work in the royal necropolis of Dahshur on the west bank of the Nile River, in an area home to some of Egypt’s oldest pyramids.
“Several stone, clay and wooden sarcophagi were found and some contain mummies in good condition,” the antiquities ministry said in a statement.
The ancient wall stretches some 60 metres and is situated south of the pyramid of 12th dynasty pharaoh King Amenemhat II, also in the Dahshur necropolis.
The finds also included funerary masks as well as tools dating back to the Late Period — which spanned almost 300 years up to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt in 332 BC — used for cutting stones, the ministry said.
Egypt has in recent years sought to promote archaeological discoveries across the country in a bid to revive tourism, which took a hit from the turmoil that followed its 2011 uprising.
eSwatini bans “weird” witchcraft competition
The proposed competition of witchcraft and magic spells was unheard of and regarded as an anomaly in the country
A competition pitting witchdoctors against each other in a battle of skills this weekend in eSwatini — formerly known as Swaziland — has been banned, according to a government statement.
Organisers had planned to hold the competition in Manzini, the second city of eSwatini, a country in southern Africa ruled by King Mswati III, one of the world’s last absolute monarchs.
“The proposed competition of witchcraft and magic spells was unheard of in the country and it was regarded as an anomaly in the lives of the people of eSwatini,” government spokesman Percy Simelane said in a statement.
“Government will not sanction any competition of that nature. Anyone who will persist with any activity related to witchcraft will face the full might of the law.”
The statement, released on Tuesday, said the Witchcraft Act of 1889 defines witchcraft, sorcery or the practice of voodoo as a punishable offence.
“Government cannot sit back and watch while the lives of the citizens of this country are exposed to illegal and weird practices that have the potential to poison the minds of (Swazi people), especially children,” Simelane added.
“Government will not allow the voodoo competition — period!”
eSwatini has a population of 1.3 million people, with many following Christianity and indigenous beliefs.
The Times of Swaziland on Wednesday quoted “Africa Gama”, the organiser of the event, as saying the competition would have pit witchdoctors against traditional healers as under the previous king Sobhuza II, who died in 1982.
“The King was concerned about unnecessary competition among healers so he called them to one place so that they could demonstrate their powers,” he said.
“I was competing with traditional healers, doctors, and prophets from across the world.”
How Malawi’s busker is fighting myths about albinism
Chigwandali is not your usual street musician. He is an albinism musician and has featured in a Madonna-produced documentary
Like scores of other buskers, Lazarus Chigwandali plies the streets of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe hoping for a few coins from appreciative passers-by.
But Chigwandali is not your usual street musician. He is an albino, releasing a professional album, and the star of a documentary produced by Madonna.
Albinos are often targeted in brutal attacks in Malawi and other southern African countries because they have white skin due to a hereditary condition that causes lack of pigmentation.
Killings, abductions and gruesome dismembering of body parts for witchcraft and rituals are all real dangers.
Despite the risks, Chigwandali, 39, has been out in front of the public for years playing his upbeat tunes on a homemade banjo and a drum that he hits with a pedal operated by his right foot.
His big break came just last year when a tourist took a video of him on a cellphone and the footage was seen by Swedish producer Johan Hugo, who asked him to record an album.
Chigwandali, who sings in the local Chichewa language, draws on his tough upbringing for his music, telling of constant harassment, suspicion and the threat of physical attack.
“Growing up, people didn’t want us being close to them because of our skin,” he told reporters.
“People would leave when I went to watch a football match with my younger brother (also an albino), others would jostle us.”
“The album talks about the plight of persons with albinism. How people should not stigmatise others.”
‘Blows you away’ –
Chigwandali’s music stands out on its own — energetic with sharp vocals that catch everyone’s attention as they walk by.
Hugo, the Swedish producer, was so impressed by the video clip that he tracked down the Malawian busker and offered to record his music.
“A few golden times in life something blows you away in such an amazing way you just cry and laugh and shake your head,” Hugo said later on social media.
“(It was) one of the coolest and most emotional moments of my life.”
Chigwandali still busks occasionally to provide for his wife and three sons — two of them albinos — though he hopes the blossoming projects he is involved with will soon bring in a regular income.
He wears a wide-brimmed hat to keep off the sunlight that causes painful damage to his sensitive, heavily-freckled skin, and a traditional handmade shirt with a matching pair of trousers.
Ikponswa Ero, the UN’s chief expert on albinism, told reporters that Chigwandali was playing a unique role in tackling prejudice against albinos.
“He is using the arts for advocacy, which is a powerful tool because it touches people’s hearts, so he is really doing something important here,” she said.
“People like Lazarus complement people like myself who report and help build policy.”
And Malawi has experienced a surge in violent attacks on people with albinism.
In a report last year, Amnesty International said that since November 2014 there had been 148 crimes reported against people with albinism, with at least 21 deaths.
For Chigwandali, he says his “recent status as a famous musician has made it difficult for me to be a target because I am more prominent. So, now I go to the village without the fear of being abducted.”
‘Give voice to albinos’ –
Originally from the town of Dedza in central Malawi, Chigwandali moved to Lilongwe after his much-loved younger brother died of skin cancer in 2006.
Superstar singer, Madonna met him during a visit to Malawi last year, and took an executive producer credit in the documentary, simply titled “Lazarus”, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April.
“A powerful voice of a new generation in Malawi,” Madonna wrote beneath a picture of the pair on social media when they performed together in Malawi.
As well as Madonna, Chigwandali hopes to emulate Salif Keita, the Malian afro-pop star singer who also has albinism.
Now preparing for his album launch, he has released a promotional track “Ndife Alendo” (“We are strangers”) which has been played on several BBC radio stations.
“My message is reaching the whole world now,” he said. “But there’s also been really amazing support from Malawi radio and TV — I want people in my home country to hear this music and appreciate it.
“This has all been a rollercoaster ride for me, these things don’t happen in real life normally. I don’t know what to expect. But I trust that people want the best for me.
“I hope my music gives a voice to people with albinism, so they understand they’re as worthy as any other human being.”
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