Although Madagascar's economy is essentially agricultural, much of the land is unsuitable for cultivation because of its mountainous terrain, extensive laterization, and inadequate or irregular rainfall. Only about 5% of the land area is cultivated at any one time. Despite these figures, agriculture accounts for 30% of GDP and employs about 75% of the work force. Large-scale plantations dominate the production of sisal, sugarcane, tobacco, bananas, and cotton, but, overall, Malagasy agriculture is dependent mainly on small-scale subsistence farmers cultivating less thanoneha (2.47 acres) of land.
A wide variety of food crops is grown. Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet; production was an estimated 2,637,000 tons in 1999. Nevertheless, the yield is insufficient to meet the country's needs and in 1982, 1984, and 1990 cyclones severely damaged the rice crop. Cassava, bananas, and sweet potatoes are also important. Madagascar has sought to diversify staple crop production by promoting maize and potatoes. Other important food crops (with 1999 production figures) include cassava, 2,435,000 tons; sugarcane, 2,180,000 tons; sweet potatoes, 520,000 tons; potatoes, 285,000 tons; bananas, 265,000 tons; corn, 181,000 tons; and oranges, 85,000 tons.
The major Malagasy export is coffee. In the 1980s, coffee regularly earned about 24% of total export revenues. After the collapse of the International Coffee Organization in 1989, however, coffee exports accounted for only 8.6% of Malagasy foreign trade earnings in 1992 (down from 35% in 1985); in 2001, it accounted for about 12% of exports. Production was 85,000 tons in 1991 and about 65,000 tons in 1999.
Vanilla is the second-ranking agricultural export, with exports of 853 tons of extract (for a value of $9.5 million) in 2001. International trade in natural vanilla is determined by agreements between producers (mainly Madagascar and the Comoros) and the principal importers by which export prices and traded volumes are fixed. The government does not encourage overproduction, since the international market demand is very sensitive because of competition from synthetic vanilla (vanillin). Madagascar is the world's major natural vanilla producer, accounting for about 75% of production.
Cloves are the third main export crop, grown mostly by smallholders. Production follows a 4-year cycle with 2–3 years of high output followed by one year of low production. Clove exports totaled 16,723 tons in 2001, valued at $88.5 million. Other 1999 production figures for cash crops were seed cotton, 33,000 tons; peanuts, 34,000 tons; sisal, 18,000 tons; and cocoa, 4,000 tons. Pepper is another important export crop. Pepper exports in 2001 amounted to 635 tons, valued at $1.2 million. The sugar sector has been revived with the help of French investments. The needs of the domestic market are served by five sugar refineries.
Production of cash crops has been discouraged by the low prices paid by state agencies, which sometimes have failed to collect crops or pay for them on time. In 2001, Madagascar's agricultural trade surplus was $21.5 million.