Madagascar is famous for its vanilla, but the process of growing, processing and exporting it is complex, and raises a number of questions about sustainability. I just got back from a two-week preliminary visit, where I met with people connected with the industry and went to see the main vanilla growing region.
Madagascar was unlike anywhere I’d ever been. It felt to me like a mixture of continental Africa, Southeast Asia and even France, reflecting its indigenous and colonial history. It’s an amazing country, and I was lucky to spend some time there, getting to grips with the vanilla industry.
Antananarivo is the capital city and a fascinating place to visit… Or so the guide book says. I hardly had time to appreciate it, with two meetings scheduled every day. I met with UN organisations, academic institutions, government institutions, national NGOs, international NGOs and certification labels, all of whom gave me some insight into the vanilla industry in Madagascar.
I soon found out that street addresses are not very common in Madagascar: an address typically consists of the building name and the area, and taxi drivers navigate by driving around the area asking for directions. The local taxis were a cheap and convenient way to get around, but I did once find myself stranded halfway to a meeting, and had to walk the rest of the way. My advice: always make sure your taxi has enough petrol. All things considered, I think it’s pretty impressive that I only had to reschedule a meeting once!
After Antananarivo, it was up to the North-East coast. Sambava and Anthala are two cities in the SAVA region, where most of the vanilla is grown. It took me an hour to fly there from Antananarivo, but it would have taken three days to drive. The roads in Madagascar are terrible, especially to and from the North.
Most of the vanilla in SAVA is grown in the forest on family farms, but larger plantations do exist. I visited a plantation and was shown around by the farmer. Sadly, his vanilla is infected by a fungus, known locally as “bekorontsana”, which could cause him to lose his harvest. This fungus is a widespread problem in Madagascar. The country is also suffering from a plague of locusts – the North-East hasn’t been hit yet, but it is at risk of severe damage if measures aren’t put in place to limit the infestation.
I was honoured to be greeted by a vanilla flower at the plantation. Vanilla flowers bloom for less than a day, in which time they must be pollinated by hand, or they will shrivel and drop off. The usual flowering season for vanilla is in October, so I was especially lucky to catch one in bloom.
A number of the people I met with mentioned that vanilla theft is an issue in Madagascar. Farmers tattoo their pods to identify them, and they sometimes harvest vanilla too early in the fear that it will be stolen if left on the plant. The government has set dates before which it is illegal to harvest vanilla each year, but farmers say that this has done little to deter thieves.
After seeing the vanilla “in the wild”, I visited a warehouse where vanilla is cured and stored. The curing process brings out the rich aroma and distinctive flavour that make vanilla so popular. The preparation is a time-consuming process, taking 7 to 8 months – just one of the reasons vanilla is so valuable.
Madagascar’s scenery is incredibly varied, but these rice fields are a common sight in many parts of the country. Rice is the staple food in much of Madagascar, and is eaten at every meal. It’s also the main source of income for many farmers, who sell it or trade it for salt, soap, oil and tobacco. Poverty is widespread among Malagasy farmers, and as the price of vanilla fluctuates, many vanilla farmers battle to support their families between harvests.
I returned home after a busy and exciting two weeks, with great insights into the sustainability of Madagascar’s vanilla industry. I’ve come back with a lot of food for thought about the issues affecting the industry, and the farmers in particular.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to bring home a lemur. It turns out that smuggling them home in your luggage is frowned upon (… or so I’ve heard).
Lowna Gie works for Fairfood on the Madagascar vanilla hotspot and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.