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From exporting coral to restoring reefs, a Madagascar startup rethinks business

todayFebruary 7, 2024 12

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Koraï divers prepare to install a frame housing young hard corals in the protected waters of Antsoha Island, off northwestern Madagascar. Image courtesy of Koraï.

By via Mongabay

With coral cover declining in Madagascar, Koraï, a Franco-Malagasy startup, has shifted its focus to coral reef restoration from its predecessor’s specialization in coral export. Jeimila Donty, its founder and CEO, is part of a young “pro-climate” generation keen to grow their businesses and earn a living while working to protect the environment.

Two years after Donty’s father passed away in 2020, she decided to take over the family business and shift its focus to restoring coral reefs. Under her father, the business, called Marine Aquaculture, farmed coral for export to aquarists. She renamed it Koraï, and based it in Paris where she now lives. The farm and other operations are carried out on Nosy Be, a small island of idyllic beaches in northwestern Madagascar, where she grew up. The venture brings together both her family history and her love for Nosy Be.

Although her studies in business didn’t originally seem to set her up for this line of work, Donty says she soon realized that entrepreneurship and environmental conservation weren’t incompatible. Even though her academic background could have let her work for big companies and earn a comfortable income, it didn’t fit in with her calling to protect the environment.

“I’m part of a different generation than the ones before me — I want to use what I know to incorporate the environment into my business model,” she tells Mongabay.

Jeimila Donty, founder and CEO of Koraï.Jeimila Donty, founder and CEO of Koraï. Image courtesy of Jeimila Donty.

In fact, Donty is following her late father’s wishes to run his business in a more sustainable way in light of the ongoing environmental crisis. In 2019, she says, he’d been planning to start raising awareness about coral protection; his daughter later decided to take this further, putting a stop to exports altogether.

Surrounded by some 2,400 square kilometers (927 square miles) of reefs that are home to 380 species of coral, Madagascar boasts exceptional marine biodiversity, comparable to that of the Coral Triangle in the Western Pacific. However, the island has undergone an “overall degradation of coral reefs” since the 1980s, according to a 2022 study, mainly due to bleaching events, overfishing and sedimentation. This sedimentation results from the deforestation of coastal mangroves and trees in the island’s interior, which hold back soil in watersheds.

Koraï has maintained Marine Aquaculture’s coral nurseries for the purpose of reintroducing the corals into their natural environment on behalf of other businesses. Using strains taken initially from the sea, it propagates cuttings in the nursery and reintroduces them around the protected island of Antsoha.

Koraï offers coral restoration as a service for businesses wanting to make an international commitment as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. It provides annual impact reports that can be used in the companies’ own sustainability reports in accordance with the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, established by the European Commission in 2022. The directive requires companies in the EU to publish information on the impact of their social, environmental and governance activities. The startup eventually plans to establish a blue carbon offsetting scheme and to extend its restoration work to continental Africa.

Last year, Koraï planted 1,500 hard coral cuttings off Antsoha, 28 km (17 mi) from Nosy Be, according to Donty. The mortality rate is currently less than 5%, she says. Koraï also has an edutainment aquarium intended to raise awareness among its corporate clients, local communities and tourism operators, and tourists visiting Nosy Be.

A Koraï diver with a coral growing frame. A Koraï diver with a coral growing frame. Image courtesy of Koraï.

‘I want to shake up today’s idea of capitalism’

Donty says she wanted to apply an entrepreneurial approach to nature conservation because it offers several advantages over other approaches. Coral reef restoration work has been going on for several years in Madagascar, but until now has only been carried out by environmental associations and NGOs. Koraï appears to be the first for-profit company involved in this activity on the island, according to Gildas Georges Boleslas Todinanahary, senior lecturer and head of the training department at the University of Toliara’s Fisheries and Marine Sciences Institute.

As not-for-profit organizations, associations and NGOs rely on grants that can be limiting, and often depend on volunteers to vary out the work. In contrast, a business aims to generate sufficient profits to ensure optimal performance with support from paid staff. Businesses are more likely to achieve impacts than NGOs, according to Todinanahary. “The main advantage with a company is that their performance is directly based on their results, not just on their activities,” Todinanahary says. “Active restoration efforts are valued much more highly than those focusing solely on management.”

“I didn’t just want to volunteer,” Donty says, “I wanted to incorporate the environment into my business model and shake up today’s idea of capitalism.” Koraï’s model is inspired by the likes of large businesses such as France-based EcoTree and Ecocean, and Bahamas-based Coral Vita, which Donty says were already recognizing the value of nature through their entrepreneurship nearly 15 years ago, even before many of today’s carbon credit initiatives.

Natural coral reef in the waters off Madagascar. Natural coral reef in the waters off Madagascar. Image by Frontierofficial via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Visitors at Koraï’s edutainment aquarium in Nosy Be, Madagascar.Visitors at Koraï’s edutainment aquarium in Nosy Be, Madagascar. Image courtesy of Koraï.

‘Green entrepreneurship is not easy’

Koraï’s model is ambitious, and faces many challenges.

“Although it’s very popular right now, green entrepreneurship is not easy,” Donty says. All her current customers are based in Europe, but their CSR programs often aren’t well structured, and some don’t even have a dedicated budget.

Being based in Madagascar also brings certain challenges, particularly in recruiting employees, she says. Young people would rather study tourism and business than technical subjects, especially in Nosy Be, a tourism hotspot. On top of this, educational achievement is low among young Madagascans, according to a government report. A lack of infrastructure is a further challenge. According to Donty, some marine protected areas around Nosy Be don’t even have buoys to mark their boundaries and prevent fishers from entering.

Todinanahary also laments the government’s lack of interest in marine conservation. As it stands, he says, there are no specific laws focusing on marine ecosystems, and the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development is only just beginning to consider them.

There’s also a lack of strategies aimed at supporting vulnerable local communities, who have no choice but to fish the reefs, which contributes to reef degradation. Nevertheless, there’s room for hope, Todinanahary says, because these communities are beginning to appreciate the importance of coral conservation.

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