(AGRI RESOURCES MADAGASCAR) - When we talk about vanilla most people imagine a delicious cake or ice cream. However, vanilla travels a long way before reaching its destination. For about 80% of the vanilla produced globally, this journey starts in the beautiful SAVA Region, of Madagascar where, for thousands of farmers, Vanilla means much more than a delicious dessert. They call Vanilla “green gold” because for many farmers and their families vanilla represent their single source of income, on which they rely for their livelihoods. Vanilla requires a lot of patience and intensive labour, considering that each vanilla orchid can only be pollinated by hand. This makes vanilla one of the most labour-intensive crops in the world. It is also one of the most expensive and, by weight, can sell for more than silver.
Around 5kg of green vanilla beans are needed to produce 1kg of black beans
There are around 40 million vanilla orchids flowering every year in the SAVA region of Madagascar. This is where Agri Resources Madagascar was founded in 2015. Based in Antalaha, the company manages the production, sourcing, processing and export of high-quality vanilla and spices. Their local presence has given the team the privilege of acquiring in-depth knowledge about the cultivation of vanilla, learning from those who have cultivated it for generations. Through their participation in Inside Madagascar Association, Agri Resources Madagascar shares ambitious goals for the sustainable development of the communities in which the team live and work. In addition to using their own plantations, each year the team travels to remote locations to procure green vanilla and spices directly from local producers.
“The access to Andrikiriky is relatively difficult.”
This year the team lead by Alissa Hervouët, opened the campaign with a trip to the remote village of Andrikiriky.
Q: Before we talk about the 2021 Green Vanilla Campaign, could you please tell us a little bit more about what brought you to Madagascar?
For me coming to Madagascar was a natural next step.
Seven years ago, during an internship in Indonesia, I discovered the world of vanilla and spices. Attracted by its complexity, I decided to pursue a career in this field and with Madagascar being one of the hot spots for the production of perfume, aromatic and medicinal plants, I knew I would eventually go there one day, I just didn’t know when.
In fact, it happened when I got an offer from Agri Resources Madagascar to oversee the preparation of Vanilla (known as the queen of spices) in Antalaha. I didn’t hesitate and went for it. During the last two years living here, I haven’t really looked back, as every day I find myself even more fascinated with this wonderful product.
Q: How did the green vanilla campaign start this year?
The green vanilla campaign officially opened on Monday, July 5 (date set by the Malagasy Government and authorizing the trade of freshly harvested vanilla beans).
Our team left Antalaha for the village of Andrikirik, two days later, on Wednesday the 7th, giving the producers time to harvest the mature pods from their plantations.
The access to Andrikiriky is relatively difficult since the village is not served by any main road. Although the first section of the journey can be done by 4×4 (1h30 journey), you then have to take a canoe to go up the river and finish on foot.
At Agri Resources Madagascar we are fortunate to own a canoe. However, after 30 minutes of sailing in calm water, things got complicated, there are more rocks and there are a few rapids. It was, therefore, necessary to change canoes in the village of Antombana and call in more experienced canoeists. The navigation lasted another hour before we were dropped off at the bank. 40 min walk later, we finally arrived on the plateau where the inhabitants have settled and where, surrounded by mountains, they cultivate vanilla.
Q: What attracted you to this remote location?
At Agri Resources Madagascar, we pay particular attention to the quality of vanilla, we also wish to support producers who have been involved in this sector for several generations.
We went to Andrikiriky to meet some of the members of APVAM, we have been working with this association for several years now.
“At Agri Resources Madagascar, we pay particular attention to the quality of vanilla.”
The difficulty of accessing the village means that producers do not always have the means to go to the coast to sell their products and there are fewer collectors than elsewhere.
In our view going to remote villages such as this one is important because in that way we can ensure an outlet for producers, ensure product traceability and limit the risk of contamination of the certified organic product, by sourcing it at its origin and by controlling the transfer to our processing workshops.
Q: How were you received?
Unfortunately, only a few collectors are willing to make the trip to the area. So vanilla growers are always happy to see a buyer arriving because that means they’re finally going to be able to make some money. This year the months leading up to the harvest have been difficult for them, leaving them with small to no income and depleting the little savings, they have made before. Every year, the opening of the green vanilla campaign marks a new boom, where money is in abundance and people are celebrating. On arrival in the village, the setting is magnificent with striking mountains surrounding the area. As in the majority of the villages in the region, the houses are made of wood, there is no electricity (despite some solar panels), and people live according to the seasons.
Q: What is your process for buying green vanilla from the farmers?
Sourcing truly traceable vanilla, with organic certification, requires time and control.
Agri Resources team works closely with the coordinators from Inside Madagascar, who are present on a daily basis with producers in the area. Prior to going, they identify all the members of APVAM BIO and collect data for the production capacities of each farmer. We supply them with “gonys”, in accordance with the requirements of the Ecocert BIO specifications, so that the vanilla can be stored there after the harvest.
To verify the vanilla which we were about to buy, store them overnight and make payments, we settled down in the house on one of the farmers, out of sight in order to avoid sparking jealousy among the cultivators.
“We settled down in the house on one of the farmers.”
For each producer who came to us with their vanilla we had to perform the following steps : identity card and APVAM member card. We check that the weight of his product does not exceed the famer’s production quota, registered by APVAM. We sort the vanilla keeping only the mature and healthy pods of the planifolia species. After weighing the final product, a receipt indicating the quantity purchased is edited and signed by the producer. Cash payments are made directly.
Q: What is the secret of producing quality vanilla?
I make a point of sourcing only the highest quality vanilla. It is a commitment that I make to satisfy the customer but also to participate in the sustainability of the sector. I believe that by buying only quality pods, we are pushing producers and suppliers to maintain the rigour of the past and we are helping to maintain Madagascar’s place at the global level and its reputation as the best vanilla in the world. By adopting such a strategy, I am gradually forging a reputation as a strict buyer. (One could take it as a criticism but I prefer to take it as a compliment). I am certainly demanding, but I pay the right price.
“The entire northeast of Madagascar lives to the rhythm of the vanilla campaigns.”
Each batch of vanilla is systematically checked and sorted, to keep only the most beautiful pods.
This requires time, rigour and also strong product expertise. All this work is, above all, possible thanks to my competent team of verifiers. Some have decades of experience behind them. Vanilla is a much more complex product than it looks and I’m always impressed with how quickly they work. By looking at the appearance, texture and especially smell, they are able to tell me in what year and where the pods were harvested.
If today Agri Resources Madagascar is able to meet the demand of its customers and export a quality product, this is, on the one hand, thanks to the committed producers, who respect the vanilla cycle and harvest the pods at maturity and, on the other hand, thanks to the checkers and preparers who make up the company’s team.
Q: How do you ensure traceability?
Ensuring the traceability of a product is a complex task, much more than the customer imagines. Of course, there is the logistics aspect, access to remote areas and developing relationships with the growers. This is the most time-consuming step because it requires knowing the area and gaining the confidence of the farmers. But ultimately, the hardest part (and this is where the limit of the principle of traceability lies), is to ensure that the product delivered by the farmer is indeed the result of his own production. This is especially valid regarding certified organic products, which are sold at a higher price than conventional products. In this case, the producers may be tempted to collect from their neighbours and sell at a higher price. There is no such thing as zero risk but we take all the precautions to limit it.
The follow-up of the producers is essential: their plots are referenced, the vanilla plants are counted, the flowering rate is followed closely in order to determine their production capacity. All this work is carried out by the Inside Madagascar coordinators who act as external parties, guarantors of respect for the rules on both sides. We choose to go to the production sites ourselves and not to outsource the collection step, precisely in order to ensure the origin of the product.
Agri Resources Madagascar teams, therefore, travel to the villages to meet each producer who is an APVAM member wishing to sell their production. However even if a producer is a member of the association but does not wish to be transparent about his production capacity, I am forced to refuse his merchandise because the guarantees on the origin of the product are too weak.
Q: What do those sales mean to the farmers?
Vanilla is the main source of income for farmers in the region. The entire northeast of Madagascar lives to the rhythm of the vanilla campaigns and the entire economy is impacted by this sector. When vanilla prices fall, the whole region slows down as purchasing power falls and consumption drops. Conversely, when prices increase, people start consuming again, going out and the streets are busier. One only needs to look at bar frequentation and observe the types of vehicles in circulation to know whether the vanilla sector is doing well or not. From an outside perspective, it can seem quite funny. But for growers, this money generated by the vanilla sector is vital. A large part of it is used to finance their children’s education, to feed the whole family and to invest in their habitat.
Managing so much money in cash is not easy and storing it is risky. Indeed, very few producers are integrated into the banking system and are obliged to keep the blue notes at home. One of the strategies adopted by the farmers is therefore to sell the production in two stages: one part during the green campaign, in July, and the second during the bulk campaign which will open in October. This makes it possible to spread the inflows over the year and with a little luck (if the market is moving in the right direction), to capture a greater share of added value, by selling at a higher price.
Alissa Hervouët, Director of Operations, Agri resources Madagascar
With a Franco-German origin, Alissa has evolved in multicultural environments since her early childhood. In fact, spending her young years in Ivory Coast have given her a taste for life abroad. An engineer in tropical agronomy and international development, she is a specialist in the sector of Perfume, Aromatic and Medicinal Plants. After joining the team of Agri Resources Madagascar in 2019 with the aim of improving the vanilla traceability system, Alissa now supervises the entire value chain, from field purchases to marketing. Alissa has a global vision of the sector and participates in the implementation of vanilla supply strategies.