When you think of Madagascar you probably think of a tropical paradise of sun, sea and sand.
But Madagascar faces immense challenges.
It's is one the poorest countries in the world. With a population of 19.6m, 9.8m of whom are children, and with 76.5 per cent of the population struggling to survive on less than $1.25 a day, poverty is rife.
Because it’s between two climatic zones Madagascar is hit by three or four cyclones in an average year, which destroy thousands of schools. Over the past five years an average of 1,000 schools a year have been destroyed by the cyclones, affecting nearly 150,000 students annually.
Helping children to be climate-ready and keeping the schools they need standing is another challenge facing Madagascar. But there is an answer: cyclone-proof schools. Combining the principles of a child-friendly school, built with eco friendly materials, and a school that can withstand a cyclone not only protects Madagascar’s unique biodiversity but also ensures that the Malagasy children get their education - a basic right.
Heading up the eco friendly project is UNICEF’s Mario Bacigulupo. A trained architect specialising in school design, he works closely with the local community to lead the building and refurbishing of the schools.
Mario has a clear vision of what a child friendly school is: "A school has to be built as a space that allows the best possible environment to attract students and to facilitate their learning" he says. "It should promote inclusive access for girls, boys, and disabled children, as well as adults."
Pupils Angita and Sylvie and Angita's mother inside one of Mario's cyclone-proof classrooms in Madagascar in 2011.© UNICEF UK/2011/Hannah Barrett
Mario’s approach is certainly paying off. More than 260 of the thousands of schools destroyed by Cyclone Ivan in 2009 have already been rebuilt to an excellent standard, and more work is in the pipeline.
His observation that schools need to be girl-friendly is also pertinent. Only half of the girls who actually attend schools in Madagascar will finish. Keeping kids in schools is one of the biggest tasks of all. Of the children who go to school, many will drop out after their first or second year.
Those who do remain suffer from poor-quality education and often have to repeat the academic year several times before passing.
It’s not just the challenge of keeping children in school that Mario faces. He is also trying to give communities a realistic alternative to the more traditional building materials, which are both costly and damaging to Madagascar's environment.
"Sometimes, [traditional building methods] can contribute to destroying the environment", says Mario. "For example, the use of clay-fired bricks, which rely on burning massive quantities of wood in the firing process, aren’t environmentally friendly, but the bricks are one of Madagascar’s most commonly used building materials."
Mario and his workers are finding new systems with local people. "We have already developed an alternative, using interlocking compressed earth bricks as wall filler and reinforced masonry as a better way to construct."
It's clear that Mario's mission is to give children the best start in life and the tools to fight poverty - through education. "We can use our schools as a space for change, where children will be the actors and the architects of their own future", he says. "It's up to us to give them the opportunity. There is no time for pessimism! We are in the age of last opportunities, where there is no way back, so what are we waiting for?"
UNICEF’s partnership with IKEA helps fund Mario’s child friendly schools in Madagscar.
Kate Robinson is in UNICEF UK's Corporate Partnerships team.