Editor’s note: Ylang-ylang is pronounced ee-lang ee-lang
Ylang-ylang is a popular crop in the Comoran town of Mbambani. It is an evergreen tree sometimes called the perfume tree. It blooms with yellow flowers that produce a strong, sweet scent. Farmers sell the flowers by the kilogram. But a few years ago, the selling price dropped. That’s when some farmers decided to switch from growing flowers to producing staples.
Said Abdou began growing ylang-ylang when he was 20 years old. He sold to traders for export to India. Ylang-ylang flowers are distilled for their essential oil and used in perfumes. Mr. Abdou earned a good living. A single harvest could bring him up to 500,000 Comoran francs, or about 1,300 US dollars. He harvested flowers three times per year.
In fact, ylang-ylang has been an important part of the Comoran economy. It accounted for about a third of the country’s export value in 1998. But a decade later, the global economic crisis led to a decline in perfume sales. Demand for ylang-ylang oil fell sharply. Producers were left with harvests that no one wanted to buy. So Mr. Abdou decided it was time to grow something else.
At 61 years old, Mr. Abdou has no interest in retiring. He continues farming to support his family, including four children who attend college. These days, he meets his family’s needs by growing bananas and cassava for sale. He says, “It is true that with ylang-ylang I earned much more than what I earn now producing banana and cassava, but I have no choice − my children want to eat and go to school.”
In a year, Mr. Abdou can harvest two crops each of bananas and cassava. He earns less than half the income that he did when ylang-ylang prices were good. He says he cannot cover all of his family’s expenses. Fortunately, three of his children are now independent and can help cover the shortfall.
Ahamada Tabibou is another ylang-ylang producer from the same village as Mr. Abdou. He is about the same age as Mr. Abdou and has four children. But he has taken a different approach to the drop in ylang-ylang prices. He continues to grow the flowers in the hope that good prices will return. He insists, “We have the right to maintain hope because ylang-ylang is a sought-after commodity.” Mr. Tabibou can find traders to take his ylang-ylang, but for a very low price. He grows some cassava to help feed his family.
Mr. Abdou is looking for a way to supplement his family’s income. He’s thinking of opening a small agro-dealership with his son. They would sell agricultural inputs, such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers. But he has not uprooted his ylang-ylang trees. He may cultivate them again in the future, if the price improves.