Vanilla in Madagascar | © Fireflies

Three Things You Didn’t Know About Vanilla and International Development

BY: Jane Carter, Christelle Soanirina, Rija Razakamampionona, Nirina Harilanto Solofoniaina - 01. May 2024
© Fireflies

“Oh, it’s so vanilla” is a casual comment one sometimes hears to describe something bland or boring. Yet vanilla is far from boring – and perhaps people in the West take the familiar flavoring for granted. Demand for the spice is traditionally highest in North America and Europe (especially France), but is now growing in Asia, especially Japan.

This is the third in a series of blogs about the small-holder farmers who produce the spices that flavor our food – and how international cooperation efforts can assist some of them to improve their lives, and their natural environment. Here we focus on vanilla grown in Madagascar, beginning with a few facts. 

1. Pollinated by hand

Vanilla pods are produced on the vines of an orchid – the only orchid that produces edible pods. Long valued by the people of Mexico, from where it originates, the Aztecs are considered to be the first people who used vanilla for flavoring (combining it with cocoa). The Spanish colonialists then introduced it to Europe, and demand for vanilla grew. Attempts to cultivate it in other tropical locations failed – the orchid grew and flowered, but failed to produce pods. The reason for this, only realized after some time, was that there were no natural pollinators in the areas that it was introduced.

The solution to this problem was found on the island of Reunion, 500 miles east of Madagascar, in 1841 and is attributed to an enslaved young man named Edmond Albius. He realized that it was possible to pollinate the flowers by hand – a technique that quickly spread and has allowed the commercial cultivation of vanilla in many locations far from its origins. Madagascar is now the leading world supplier of vanilla, just ahead of Indonesia, with Mexico in third place.

Pollination by hand is a skilled and laborious task, often conducted by women farmers. It also requires perfect timing; the flowers open and close within 24 hours. If not pollinated within this time period, they wilt and die without setting pods. Malagasy farmers have learned to observe their vanilla vines carefully, making daily checks during the flowering period (around October – November) to ensure that they treat the flowers at exactly the right time.

Vanilla in Madagascar | © Fireflies
Aderette Hortentienne hand pollinates her vanilla plant.  © Fireflies
Vanilla in Madagascar | © Fireflies
Increasingly, diseases are affecting vanilla plants.  © Fireflies
Slash and burn agriculture in Madagascar | © Fireflies
Slash and burn agriculture is still a common practice in much of Madagascar. © Fireflies

2. Sensitive to climate change

Madagascar is one of the African countries most severely affected by the impacts of climate change. In particular, it is vulnerable to cyclones, which now occur on average three times a year. Originating in the Indian Ocean, they hit the northeast of the country with special force. It is here that the main vanilla growing areas lie. As a fleshy vine that is trained to climb “nurse trees,” the vanilla plant is poorly suited to resisting high winds and torrential rain. It can thus be quicky destroyed, as was the case with the devastating cyclone Enawo in March 2017. In addition to killing over 80 people and rendering many more families homeless, this wiped out over a third of the country’s vanilla crop.

Climate change does not only pose a threat in terms of cyclones. A more insidious problem is the unpredictability of the weather. Vanilla farmers in the district of Andapa (Sava region) observe that the pattern of rainfall has become far more uncertain than in the past, influencing flowering time and thus making hand pollination less easy to plan. Too much rain, as well as warmer temperatures, can also cause flowers to fall off before there is time to pollinate them. Furthermore, increasing warmth and wetness renders the vines more susceptible to fungal and insect attack.

3. Worth its weight in silver?

The damage wrought on the 2017 harvest of Madagascan vanilla and the consequent reduction in global supplies had a knock-on effect on prices. In 2018, the price of vanilla briefly topped USD 600/kg, which was greater than the price of silver at the time. Vanilla farmers were quick to see the possibility of making huge profits, although it was those whose vines remained undamaged after the cyclone who benefited. Re-establishing destroyed vanilla gardens or creating new ones takes time; the vines generally only begin flowering three years after planting.

As has also happened in the past after other cyclones, high vanilla prices led to increased planting, followed by an increase in supply a few years later, and a drop in prices. By 2020 the price of high-quality Madagascan vanilla was USD 350/kg (a floor price established by the government); since then, it has dropped even further. This year, farmers have struggled to get even USD 100/kg for good quality vanilla.   

It is also a known fact in the industry that vanilla prices are not only determined by the volume and quality of production. The vanilla market is controlled by relatively few large buyers. Once dried and kept in appropriate conditions, vanilla pods can be stored for long time periods. This means that they can be released on the market at times that suit the seller. Yet any benefits accrued do not trickle down to farmers, who lack the necessary infrastructure to correctly dry, grade and store vanilla to export standards. Security has also been an issue; when prices were high, theft was also high. Another issue is indebtedness: Farmers commonly rely on the sale of vanilla to pay off seasonal loans (often taken at high interest). For all these reasons, they generally sell their pods immediately after harvest.

«We cannot rely on vanilla. It brings  good returns sometimes, but we  have to diversify ... I am trying out  many different crops. »

Farmer Stéphan Rabemanana, who is engaged in the RPN project

The role of Helvetas

Helvetas works with smallholder farmers in the Andapa district – a key vanilla production area. While the hilly local topography offers some protection from cyclones, it also renders access difficult. Government services are, accordingly, very limited. The smallholder farmers live around the COMATSA forest corridor (Marojejy - Anjanaharibe-Sud - Tsaratanana), an official Protected Area (IUCN category VI) that is of international biodiversity significance because it is home to many endemic species, including highly endangered Sifaka lemurs.

Helvetas manages two projects in Andapa district. The first, the project Revenus pour la Nature (RPN), which works in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund WWF, began in in 2019. In 2023, the project Miriaka (which means “Women Working Together for Nature”) was initiated. Both projects seek to improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through more productive, diversified agroforestry – discouraging the practice of “slash and burn” that is common in much of Madagascar. “Slash and burn” essentially means temporary farming – clearing and burning forest to cultivate the land until the natural fertility of the soil declines and weeds increase, at which point the farmer moves on to clear another plot. Agroforestry, by contrast, entails combining trees, bushes, vines and lower growing crops in permanent cultivation. Vanilla is a key crop in such systems. The fertility of the soil is replenished through composting, mulching, and the integration of nitrogen-fixing plants, with the smallholder receiving a package of technical support to allow him or her to shift to this sustainable production system.

The two projects have a slightly different focus and work with different target groups, but both support small-holder farmers to grow high quality, organic vanilla while diversifying to other crops to avoid over-dependence on the fluctuating vanilla prices. Women face a range of specific challenges linked to a lack of land ownership, education and access to finance and markets. Accordingly, the project is supporting women farmers to gain land tenure; build their knowledge on related matters such as land rights, sustainable agroforestry techniques and diversified nutrition; select a mix of crops for both consumption and sale; and facilitate their access to affordable loans through savings and credit groups. These different activities are all interlinked.

Ultimately, vanilla cultivation is both a boon and a bane to Malagasy smallholder farmers. While undoubtedly the greatest profits go to traders, farmers can gain significant incomes in years of high prices. Yet they can also experience major losses in years of low prices, or if hit by unfavorable weather. The comment of farmer Stéphan Rabemanana, who is engaged in the RPN project, sums this up: “We have learned that we cannot rely on vanilla. It brings good returns sometimes, but we have to diversify. The unreliability of the rain these days also makes things difficult. I am trying out many different crops – coffee, cloves, red and black pepper and others. As far as the annual crops are concerned, I wait for the arrival of the rain before making any decision.”

Additional Reading

How Helvetas Supports People in Madagascar

Improved income for small farmers, better hygiene, clean drinking water and the protection of water resources are some of our priorities.

Climate & Disaster Resilience

Every year, we support over 1,000,000 people in adapting to climate change, reducing the risks of disasters, sustainably managing natural resources, and conserving nature.