Notes from the field – The vanilla miracle

Jules Max-FarmerMany of us, at some point, have enjoyed a sweet treat that contained vanilla extract. But have you ever wondered how much work goes into the process of getting that final product on our shelves?

The Aztec people in the current Mexico were reported to be the first who discovered and used vanilla in a delicately prepared cocoa beverage reserved mostly to nobilities. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Mexico remained the only vanilla producers, in spite of all attempts to plant vanilla elsewhere, because of a failure to notice that before producing vanilla beans, vanilla blossom had been pollinated by natural pollinators – the local species of Melipona bee and hummingbird.

It was only in 1841 at the tender age of 12 that a slave on the French island of Reunion, that Edmond Albius, found a hand pollinating technique which changed the cultivation of vanilla and made it possible to grow vanilla beans for commercial purpose, away from their native Mexico. Vanilla cultivation was then extended by the French to their newly conquered territories in the Indian Ocean, in 1870 and it is now one of Madagascar’s top agricultural exports.

To gain a better understanding of the work required when hand pollinating, three Fairtrade Africa Business Development Advisors (Jean-Philippe Zanavelo, Aubrey Nyasulu, Sandra Ndlovu) together with two Business Support Officers (Athenkosi Gosani, Alinafe Kasinja) and Fairtrade Africa’s Gender Manager, Serah Mwangi visited a vanilla producer located deep in Ambodiampana Village in Sambava.

Jules Max, 63, and father of 7 children took them through the hand pollination process on his 0.6 ha farm. He is a farmer at Association Soarano Vanille, one of the 13 Fairtrade certified SPOs for Herbs and Spices in Madagascar.  “I have decided to only take care of my vanilla plantation and no other crops to make sure having good quality produce”, he said.

The team was excited to not only observe but also participate in the hand pollination process.  “This is a seriously labor-intensive process!” says Sandra Ndlovu. “Each plant has to be individually pollinated. I never imagined that it takes this much work and precision.”

To make sure that the size of vanilla pods produced is not too small for export, Good Agricultural Practice requires that the farmer leaves the last two or three blossoms of a plant  without being  pollinated . This is done with the close inspection of an internal controller from the Association. At the same time, each member has to keep their farms free from chemical substance. This is in line with Fairtrade Africa’s efforts in promoting the production of natural vanilla and valuing producers’ traditional skills in producing premium quality vanilla at individual and community level.

The experience left everyone with a new sense of respect for the amount of work the producers put into cultivation this special product.