Integrated Regional Information Networks | December 24, 2007
Vanilla farmers hit by a steep drop in the price of raw vanilla are working together to process their crops and bolster their profits.Just four years ago, vanilla farming was a booming business, and producers were receiving up to 500 US dollars, or 350 Euros, per kilogram of vanilla beans. These higher prices were welcome in Madagascar and Comoros, where large sections of the population have cultivated the spice for generations. The strong market also encouraged farmers in other countries, particularly Uganda, to take up the crop, which was sometimes referred to as “green gold.”
But the price of green vanilla pods has dropped dramatically. This year, the price was about 30 US dollars, or about 20 Euros, per kilogram – a fraction what farmers enjoyed just a few years earlier.
Benoît Thierry manages a United Nations program in Madagascar that encourages vanilla farmers to form cooperatives. He says that most small-scale farmers used to sell their vanilla unprocessed. Since the green pods don’t stay fresh long, farmers had little choice but to accept low prices from buyers who came to collect crops right after the harvest.
But now, more than 10,000 farmers in Madagascar are working together in cooperatives to cure and dry vanilla pods. This process produces a substance called vanillin, which has the distinctive smell and taste associated with vanilla products. Once cured, vanilla beans can be sold for 10 times the price of green vanilla beans. Thierry explains that cured beans can also be stored longer, offering farmers the “freedom to choose when to sell.”
Most vanilla is exported to Western countries, where there is a growing demand for organic products. Farmers are also working to add value to their crop by meeting the standards of this niche market. In the Mbale area of Uganda, for example, a group of vanilla farmers is looking forward to receiving official organic certification after undergoing five years of training in organic agriculture techniques.
Muhammad Makada is President of the Bufumbo Organic Farmers Association, an organization of more than 100 vanilla farmers. He says his members expect a premium price for organic vanilla, which they will sell to the United States and Europe.