From Bin to Flush

Paper Recycling in Madagascar

IOM - UN Migration
6 min readApr 23, 2018

Nature is essential to Madagascar’s identity. Mention the country and it will undoubtedly evoke discussions about its wildlife, natural richness or unique flora.

Madagascar’s unique biodiversity is shaped by its origins: the prehistoric break-up of the Gondwana’s supercontinents some 165 million years ago.

The late arrival of human settlers and other factors have enabled the evolution and survival of thousands of endemic plants and animal species, of which the lemur — an ancestral primate — is a well-known example.

A well-preserved environment is essential for the daily life of Malagasy people and for the long-term economic development of the country. More than 18 million people in Madagascar are dependent on biodiversity for their livelihoods. Tourism is currently the third largest source of revenue for Madagascar; the potential for the future growth of ecotourism is enormous.

On the island of Sainte Marie, children go crabbing and sell crabs to local restaurants. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM
Fishermen and women are able to fish 30 kg per day thanks to the coral reef that protects the island of Sainte Marie. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

Yet, Madagascar’s environment is gravely imperiled. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that Madagascar has already lost 80 per cent of its natural forest cover and continues to lose an estimated 200,000 hectares annually to deforestation.

If forests continue to shrink at such a fast pace, all of Madagascar’s forests could be lost within the next 40 years. There also is soil erosion due to deforestation, whole much of the island’s surface water is contaminated with raw sewage and other organic waste that aggravate an already dire situation.

IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has been present in Madagascar since 2014, implementing activities across much of IOM’s areas of work, including diaspora engagement, labour migration, counter-trafficking and border management.

As the country is increasingly affected by climate change, IOM has concentrated on programmes devoted to migration, environment and climate change (MECC), as well as community stabilization for migration-affected communities impacted by drought and desertification.

Slash-and-burn agriculture is a widespread practice in Madagascar and is one of the main causes of deforestation. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

As one of IOM’s youngest missions, Madagascar places a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability. Among the initiatives already in place is a partnership with the private company SPAH S.A. to handle and treat IOM’s Antananarivo office paper waste.

In early April, IOM spoke to Nirina Rajaonary, Director General of SPAH S.A., and visited the SPAH S.A. recycling factory in Ambohimanambola, a community located about 20 kilometres southeast of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital. The partnership helps IOM separate its paper waste from the rest, which the company then collects and recycles into toilet paper sold in Madagascar.

The General Director of SPAH S.A. and Daniel Silva, IOM Madagascar Chief of Mission, during their visit to the recycling factory. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

The factory, including its location, is a mirror of the country’s post-independence glories and hardships, and a generation’s fresh hopes and commitments to working towards a better, cleaner and more responsible future.

Before the Madagascar independence from France in 1960, the then-called “Papmad” company for “Papiers de Madagascar” (Papers of Madagascar), was owned by interests based in the United States. Throughout the 1960s, the company was producing a broad range of paper-based products. Many older Malagasies remember writing their first letters in school on a “Papmad” notebook.

The change of regime in the early 1970s and subsequent nationalization of the economy — which introduced strict foreign capital and shareholding limits — initiated a slow decline of many local industries. With a share of just 15 per cent in the economy, low industrialization remains a major constraint on the country’s development. Much of the manufacturing sector was affected, including the “Papmad” company.

As a result, even to this day, many consumer goods are imported. Basic products such as toilet paper are imported predominantly from China. Despite such products being very light, the environmental cost of transporting them remains high given their large volume. Local production chains also are responsible for significant environmental damage, notably from the chemicals used to whiten paper fibres which are not always disposed of correctly.

White paper is separated from coloured paper to make white and pink rolls. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM
Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

Madagascar is one the lowest waste producers in the world, but it is not exempt of waste challenges. It is estimated that less than 20 per cent of the waste produced from human activities is collected. The rest is left untreated, causing serious sanitary problems and environmental damage, and saturating the landfills as a result.

The space favours a local circular economy that respects the environment, creates local employment, develops a local value chain, and generates a profit. The ambition of the SPAH SA. company — which Nirina Rajaonary revived and remodeled on the ashes of the defunct “Papmad” in 2011 — is designed precisely to fill this gap.

Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

There is demand for a recycling industry. Between 15 and 20 per cent of the waste produced in the capital is paper and cardboard, but few people bother to sort waste and adhere to recycling chains. At the same time, only around seven per cent of the population uses toilet paper, which is not surprising given that only 12 per cent of the population has access to adequate sanitation and 40 per cent practices open defecation.

Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM
The rolls are packaged, prepared and then separated into packs of six ready to be shipped to distributors. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

The SPAH SA. company produces toilet paper exclusively from recycled paper sources. It maintains a broad range of partnerships with local manufactures and businesses around the capital. The company provides employment to 60 women and men from the surrounding villages. This contributes to the revival of the often-moribund local economy typical of most of the small peri-urban areas in the capital’s outskirts.

The workers operate all along the production line; from the triage of paper collected across the city and stocked in meter-high piles in a large warehouse, to the processing of paper paste. Next comes the embossing and cutting of the toilet paper and finally to the packaging and labelling of the product. The company does not use any harmful chemicals and maintains water-decantation reservoirs for used water before they are released to the nearby Ikopa river.

The paper is blanked and blended before being reworked in rolls. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

The company is still a shadow of what it once was. The factory occupies only about 1,500 square metres of the 15,000 available and 60 employees are still a far cry from the heydays of “Papmad” when 10,000 employees would work around the noisy machineries producing all sorts of products.

The majority of the factory’s machines were modified to produce toilet paper. Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

Still, the company produces one ton of wholly recycled toilet paper every year. The products are sold by the unit, a preferred purchase habit in Madagascar owing to severe poverty and the customers’ limited purchase power.

There are opportunities for growth and diversification while building a business model that values the protection of the environment. As Nirina Rajaonary puts it “the development of the country will come from the Malagasy. It is not always easy, but we need to show that this is possible.” IOM Madagascar is proud to contribute to these local successes.

Photo: Giacomo Dei Rossi/IOM

This story was posted by Daniel Silva y Poveda, IOM Madagascar Chief of Mission, with photos by Giacomo Dei Rossi, IOM Madagascar Public Information Officer.