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Madagascar: There’s a story worth telling behind those handmade hats

Published date:
Saturday, 03 January 2009

“People ask me if I am really from Madagascar,” says Georges, smiling as he hangs one of his colorful, hand-woven raffia hats at his booth at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Farmers Market on Davis Boulevard on a Saturday just past.

Georges Raelisaona actually is a native of Madagascar, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa. He studied at Marshall College in West Virginia and the University of Colorado.

He and his wife, Fanjarivo Rakotonirina, started a small hat import company based in Boulder, Colo., in 2002. “We both worked in the rain forest before I had a chance to go to graduate school here in the U.S.,’’ he says. “I was a translator and my wife trained women in the villages how to make a sustainable living. She also taught them about recycling and how to preserve the rain forest.’’

Over 80 percent of Madagascar’s people live on less than $2 a day and, according to United Nations data, it is one of the 27 least-developed countries in the world. The now-local couple wanted to help and decided to establish a weaving co-operative in the rain forest to harvest raffia and weave the fabrics which they need to make their popular wide-brim hats.

Tropical Items Madagascar, a certified Fair Trade Federation member, specializes in products made of raffia, a fiber made from a palm tree native to Madagascar. Georges notices that products made of raffia in U.S. markets are often labeled as made in China. “Something is missing here, but natural raffia fibers are from Madagascar,” Georges says.

Importing authentic Malagasy raffia products directly to the United States was made possible after the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was signed into law by then-President Clinton in 2000 and was extended by President Bush to 2015 last year. Raelisaona and his wife took advantage of the trade opportunity and went into business with a humanitarian goal in mind.

“We both wanted to find a way to help our country. We consider ourselves so blessed and we want to give back,” says Georges.

In the beginning, a portion of Tropical Items Madagascar’s proceeds were donated directly to the village co-op members for their health care and education of their children. Later on, they formed a tax-deductible, nonprofit organization, Hope For Madagascar (, to attract other donors.

“I am a one man show for now,’’ as he puts it. “I do pretty much everything from hat designs to setting up and updating our company’s Web site (”

Georges goes to Madagascar once a year at the end of the fall season to work with the co-op artisans for quality control of the hats before they get shipped to the U.S.

The hats need to sell year-round to keep the over 90 individuals involved in Madagascar busy. “Almost all of them have a family to feed and many have children to send to schools,” he says. “After driving all over the state, I was fortunate to find the St. Paul’s Episcopal Farmers’ Market.”

“His products were a hit from the first day he participated at the market,” says Roger Conant, the market manager at St. Paul’s.

“It would be nice to find other ways to market our raffia hats,’’ says Georges. “Enlarging our sales will help children in Madagascar.”

The St. Paul’s Farmers Market is located on Davis Boulevard east of Airport-Pulling Road. It is open each Saturday until April from 8 a.m. to noon.

Alan Cragg is a market volunteer and a vestry member at St. Paul’s.

“ Latest AGOA Trade Data currently available on

Click here to view a sector profile of Madagascar's bilateral trade with the United States, disaggregated by total exports and imports, AGOA exports and GSP exports.

Other regularly updated trade statistics on include: (click each link to view)

  • AGOA-Beneficiary Countries’ AGOA and GSP Trade Aggregates

  • AGOA Trade by Industry Sector

  • Apparel Trade under AGOA’s Wearing Apparel Provisions

  • Latest Apparel Quotas under AGOA

  • Bilateral Trade Data for all AGOA-eligible countries individually.

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