Ex aqua – Implementing Sustainable Ocean Farming in Ifaty

We recently welcomed back our aquaculture partners, ex aqua, to collaborate further on the development of an ocean farming concept for the sustainable cultivation of sponges and edible algae in Ifaty. In this blog, ex aqua member Timon Burger introduces the project and tells us what they have been up to over the last few months in Ifaty.

Ex aqua is a project from Aachen, Germany, which was initiated by students who are currently staying at Reef Doctor for the third time. The project was founded in 2017 as part of the international student organisation Enactus. Anna, who founded the project together with two fellow students, had read about ocean farming online. As a passionate scuba diver, she was inspired to start her own project for the cultivation of marine organisms. With the aim of helping people in disadvantaged regions of the world, they started looking for a suitable location. Eventually, the decision fell upon Madagascar as one of the poorest countries in the world. But no project can start off without good partners! Luckily, we found Reef Doctor who are not only providing us with accommodation, food and the necessary infrastructure to work in Ifaty, but also support us in all our project activities.

So, what exactly are we trying to do with ex aqua? Well, the concept is simple. We take products from the sea and try to sustainably cultivate them in our systems. In the long term, the farms are to be maintained completely by the locals. Thus, the livelihoods of the Malagasy people can be significantly improved by providing a stable source of food and income. The majority of people in Ifaty rely on earnings from fisheries. Unfortunately, due to overfishing, many fishermen are no longer able to provide a sufficient livelihood solely based on fishing. Therefore, our concept can fill this gap by providing a second source of income.

Our first two trips were mainly about finding out what we can and want to do in our project. With just the idea of ocean farming in mind, the first group of students travelled to Ifaty and tested two different organisms. After experimenting with mussels and oysters, those ideas were discarded, and the focus shifted to edible algae and sponges. In the Bay of Ranobe, located just at the gates of the Reef Doctor camp, an algae called Caulerpa lentillifera grows between larger patches of seaweed. It is also known as sea grapes or sea caviar for its appearance and taste. The algae is rich in nutrients such as calcium and magnesium and thus has great potential to enhance the diet of the Malagasy people. Sea sponges can be processed into bath sponges and then sold to tourists. This provides an additional, stable income for the locals.

Having defined the specifications and goals of our project, the difficult part is not over yet, but has just begun! Developing a functioning farming system is not as easy as it might sound, since the ocean and its inhabitants can be really unpredictive at times. This is what our current trip to Madagascar was for: developing our first nursery farm for sponges and algae. As we are no specialists in marine biology, we reached out to experts all over the world, who successfully undertake ocean farming activities. One of them is marinecultures.org located in Zanzibar. They have successfully implemented sponge farms and empowered local women to take care of them. Madlen and Lilia, two of our team members, visited their farms two weeks prior to their trip to Madagascar. They learned everything about sponge farming and how to overcome the difficulties in the beginning phase of such a project, enabling a knowledge transfer to our project site in Ifaty.

After that experience, the team arrived in Ifaty in mid-September. One major goal that they had set after their stay at Zanzibar was finding the right sponge species. There are more than 7500 different species of sponges in the ocean, of which not all are suited for personal care. Some types are too soft and thus fall apart easily while others have tiny spikes which make them unsuitable for bathing. Consequently, one of our main activities was screening the ocean for new sponge types that look promising. Reef Doctor employees and volunteers were of great help on our search due to their familiarity with marine life thanks to their diving experience. Equipped with masks and snorkels, we went out on sponge hunt and collected hundreds of specimens of more than a dozen different species.

The sponges collected during the sponge hunt were then applied to our two farms, that we have set up together with Pepin from Reef Doctor and our local employee Celestine. The farms have a simple setup, consisting of ropes and old water bottles collected in the camp. Our farms are also home to the algae we are trying to grow. Concerning the algae, our difficulties don’t lie in finding the right species, since our seagrapes seem to have perfect properties. But rather, figuring out the right farming method is not as easy as we thought. Our first cultivation attempts during our first and second trip were not quite successful, since the algae died after a few weeks. So on this trip, we trialled as many options as possible. We experimented with growing them in cages, in ponds and bottles. And for the first time, after a long period of trial & error, we could detect significant growth of our algae! That was a well-deserved silver lining after months of puzzling and headaches.

Now, our stay is once again coming to an end and we start to reflect on our project, what we have achieved and what we can expect from the future. With our algae doing well, our outlook is optimistic, but we still have to monitor them for a longer period in order to have a reliable database. Anna, who is currently in Ifaty with the last team, will travel around Madagascar and return to the project site after two months to see how our organisms have developed. The same applies to the sponges: we have found a species that might work, but there is still some experimentation left to do. What we have learned is that we have to incorporate local people more into our project. A time-intensive project like ours relies on people who live on site and that can supervise the farms over a longer period. Reef Doctor with its strong relationship to the villagers provides a great opportunity to implement this.”

A Morning at the Sea Cucumber Hatchery

ReefDoctor has been active in aquaculture activities for quite a while now and we have been updating you on our efforts and progress on providing an alternative livelihood to local communities through this blog. This time we’re going to take you behind the scenes of sea cucumber farming and guide you through the discovery of the whole process taking place before the juveniles are delivered to our farmers.

Most of the volunteers and interns at ReefDoctor get involved in our aquaculture program, whether cleaning our seaweed lines in Ifaty, attending seaweed and sea cucumber sales or helping building new pens. This allows them to go to several villages, but they don’t see the process of juvenile rearing from the nursery until the delivery to the farmers. This was the occasion to show them the cycle of production.

The aquaculture team, a couple of interns and volunteers as well as myself left Ifaty early in the morning in a taxi-brousse to make our way to the Indian Ocean Trepang (IOT) sea cucumber hatchery, located close to Toliara (Ankaloha). Upon arrival, we were greeted by the director of the hatchery and met students from the University of Agronomy of Antananarivo as well as from the Higher Institute of Technology of Fort Dauphin who were doing the visit with us. After a brief introduction and the splitting of the visitors into three groups, we headed to the hatchery house.

Our visit started with the hatchery, where broodstocks (themselves produced by IOT) are put together to produce larvae naturally or by in-vitro fertilisation. This step is the key of the sea cucumber (Holothuria scabra) production and the infrastructures and equipment needed are very expensive and the operations are delicate.

We then continued our tour to the nursery, where juveniles are reared and stocked before they are delivered to the farmers in the villages. The production of transferable juveniles lasts for approximately 3 months. We then headed to the maintenance systems, which are essential for the site, as this department ensures that all the rearing parameters are correct.

Upon the request of one of our aquaculture interns, we finished the tour by a visit to the crab fattening project site, located right next to the hatchery. This project consists of a commercial revalorisation of crabs physically complete (no wound, no leg or pincer missing) but lacking flesh inside the carapace. The crabs are stabled during a 20-day cycle and fed daily to fill their carapaces with flesh. The most beautiful pieces are dedicated to export and crabs that do not meet the commercial criteria for export are decommissioned and destined for freezing.

Once the tour finished and all the questions asked, we took a group photo with all the visitors and IOT staff before going back into our taxi-brousse to head back to Ifaty on time for lunch. It was a very interesting morning for everyone and we hope to organize more such visits for future volunteers and interns!

Blog and photos by RD Comms Officer Karin Moehler

finance training

April Aquaculture Update

The searing summer temperatures started to drop in southwest Madagascar in April and everyone in the Bay of Ranobe breathed a sigh of relief as we were able to sleep a little better because of the cooler nights. But, thankfully, for our Darwin Initiative-funded Sustainable Livelihoods Programme Livelihoods programme developed in partnership with DRRHP (Regional Director of Fisheries), COPEFRITO/IOT, and FRDA, aquaculture sale figures stayed high for the month despite the dropping water temperatures.

As the cold weather approaches, the challenges facing the farmers are similar to those faced during the warmer months, but instead of seeking shelter from the scorching sun, farmers have to work hard to stay warm while tending their farms, especially during sea cucumber sales, which take place late at night during spring tide. Crowds gather on the beach late at night to wait for low tide so that all the collection buckets and weighing equipment can be brought out to the farms. Farmers start gathering sea cucumbers from their pens while the weighing stations are set up. Everyone is wrapped in as many layers as possible but with sales often lasting until 3am it takes quite a while to warm up again as there are no hot showers or central heating. However, the falling sea temperatures and approaching cold didn’t deter the sea cucumber farmers of Andrevo and Ambolomailaky who had another strong month selling a combined total of 1,708 individual animals, which generated an income of 8,463,500 MGA (2664.70 USD). Early in the month of April, the farming households in Andrevo also received financial training to help them manage their now regular income from farming, and make plans for future expansions and improvements to their farms, homes and living conditions. The financial training also aims to teach farmers about negotiating prices and agreements with stakeholders and funders. Farmers in Ifaty have already received the training and, over the coming months, farmers in all the villages participating in the programme will receive training and advice. This is an essential component of the programme as the majority of the farmers are receiving a steady monthly income for the first time in their lives and experiencing a small measure of economic freedom previously unavailable to them.

finance training

finance training

finance training

Mangily farmers did not sell any seaweed again last month as the farms are still recovering from a bad outbreak of epiphytic filamentous algae in mid-2016. However, they have got their lines back in the water and we are very pleased to be able to confirm that there will be a seaweed sale in Mangily in May. We look forward to being able to report the first results from Mangily since last year.

The other seaweed farming villages had a good month in April with Betsibaroke selling an impressive 2,773 kg of seaweed, bringing in 1,663,800 MGA. In total seaweed farmers in all four villages sold a combined weight of 4,548 kg valued at 3,028,800 MGA (963.98 USD).  These figures hopefully bring everyone another month closer to lifting themselves out of poverty with a lot of hard work, training and planning.

Andrevo sea cucumber pens

March Aquaculture Update

Following a slow start to the year we are delighted to report that seaweed farming in the Bay of Ranobe is back on the rise. The community of Ifaty celebrated its best sale in 6 months, while Betsibaroke broke records with a harvest of 3,046 kg – the biggest in the community’s history! Combined, all villages in the Darwin Initiative-funded sustainable livelihoods programme generated over 5 tons of dried seaweed in March, resulting in an income of 3,193,800 MGA (991.67 USD).

There were no sea cucumber sales in March but there was still a lot of activity at the sea cucumber farms. The village of Ambolamailake received a delivery of 3,000 juvenile sea cucumbers, while in Andrevo new nursery enclosures were constructed as part of an expansion initiative with programme partners Indian Ocean Trepang. This expansion will allow 20 new households to enter sea cucumber farming activities, increasing the number of beneficiaries in that community by a factor of 5! This expansion is welcomed by the community of Andrevo, Reef Doctor, and Indian Ocean Trepang, and promises to promote sustainable, reliable poverty alleviation across a wider part of the community. It also reflects the great success and dedication of the initial farmers involved in sea cucumber farming. The new farmers are expected to receive their first delivery of juvenile sea cucumbers in April, with construction to their larger, grow-out enclosures to be completed over the coming weeks.

pen construction

andrevo pens

building new pens

sea cucumber pen building

Andrevo sea cucumber pens


aquaculture training

Sustainable Livelihoods Project Update

The rainy season is upon us here in Madagascar, and while this is still the dry, drought-riddled southwest, there was just enough rain to hinder seaweed farming operations. Once seaweed has been grown in the ocean, it must be sun-dried for about three days before it can be sold. During this drying process, it is important that fresh water avoids contact with seaweed, as it breaks down the valuable carrageenan inside the seaweed. Farmers in the Bay of Ranobe have therefore been hindered in their attempts to dry seaweed, due to the intermittent rain, and results for the months of January and February reflected this. Just over 4 tons of seaweed was sold in the first two months of the year, valuing 2.5 million MGA (745 USD).

However, we are happy to announce the completion of a large storage facility in the community of Betsibaroke, the biggest seaweed producing village in the Bay. This facility, possible with funding from program partners Fonds Regional pour le Developpement Agricole (FRDA), provides farmers with a safe and secure place to dry and store seaweed, and avoid any future disruptions due to inclement weather. The centre will also act as an aquaculture education centre, meeting place and centralized collection depot for sold seaweed. With a capacity to store 12 tons of seaweed, the centre will be officially opened in March.

construction of storage facility

building storage facilitiy

new storage facility

storage facility


Sea cucumber farming continued to be highly successful in the first two months of the year, with 2,587 sea cucumbers harvested, and 12 million MGA (3,642 USD) generated for the communities involved. On the back of these outstanding results, program partners Indian Ocean Trepang (IOT) have agreed to expand sea cucumber farming activities, and over the coming months we will be almost doubling the number of families involved, with additional increases scheduled throughout the year! In scaling up this sustainable, environmentally-sound method of sea cucumber farming, we can continue to reduce pressure on wild fisheries, replenish natural stocks of sea cucumbers, and provide a meaningful and reliable source of income for local communities.

February also saw the very exciting start of entrepreneurial training for communities involved in the Darwin Initiative-funded Sustainable Livelihoods programme. Farmers from the villages of Ifaty and Amboaboke attended a two-day training course at Reef Doctor on 15th & 16th February, learning basic book keeping skills, financial management and financial planning. This training program, developed by programme partners Conseil Diocesain De Developpement (CDD), provides farmers with the skills and information necessary to convert their aquaculture activities into small businesses, and therefore to maximize their income generating potential. Despite the low level of education, and high level of poverty in the Bay of Ranobe, this training programme offers communities the potential to shape their own future and manage their own marine resources – another step towards independence. Entrepreneurial training is being rolled out to all households in all the villages involved in the project over the coming months.

aquaculture training


Update by Project Leader Cale Golding and Comms Officer Ivana Rubino


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