Vanilla: Madagascar’s ‘Spice of Life’

There is, one sweet-tasting spice, vanilla grown in Madagascar that the world simply cannot resist. Its use as a medicinal product is said to range from treating intestinal gas and fever, to increasing one’s libido. It is used as a fragrance for perfume and other beauty products, and is commonly used in food and beverages for its sweet, smooth flavour. The spice that provides such versatility is…vanilla.

The Aztecs, within the area of modern-day Mexico, first unlocked the healing qualities of vanilla. Its use as a flavour enhancer to accompany their cacao-based drink was a closely-guarded secret (see p. 295). Initial attempts to cultivate vanilla outside of its native habitats proved unsuccessful for two centuries – due largely to difficulties in the pollination process, and absence of the Melipona bee – but in 1841, Edmond Albius, a former slave in Réunion, devised a method of artificially pollinating vanilla (see p. 300).  This artificial method of pollination paved the way for countries such as Madagascar to successfully produce vanilla, but this process still continues to be a labour-intensive method. It was first introduced to the island in 1870, which became the largest producer in 1924. In 1953, Donovan S. Correll noted that Madagascar “normally produces 75 percent of the vanilla beans grown in the world”; today, this figure is upwards of 80 per cent of global vanilla supply.

Whereas the move to artificially pollinate vanilla enabled it to be grown outside Mexico and into places such as Madagascar, chemical advancements in 1874 (just four years after its introduction to Madagascar) enabled the synthetic production of ‘vanillin’ (a vanilla extract) to drive down the price of production, albeit in a synthetic product that aims to replicate the ‘essence’ of vanilla. Synthetic vanilla accounts for up to 99 per cent of vanilla sold on the market. In more recent years, there has been a renaissance in reverting to using natural products where possible, rather than synthetic substitutes. Global brands such as Nestlé, Hershey’s and others have pledged to use natural ingredients in their products sold in the U.S.A. For lines that contain vanilla, this means using natural vanilla rather than its synthetic substitute. Consumers have driven this shift, striving for a more natural, wholesome lifestyle. Environmentalists contend that this move is bad for the planet highlighting the dilemma of how one can ‘sustainably produce what is inherently an unsustainable product’. There is, therefore, a dichotomy between what is better for the individual, versus what is better for the planet.

As most who attempt to live a more natural, wholesome lifestyle will attest, its attainment is not without its pecuniary implications. Those with a fondness for natural vanilla are advised to dig deep, for it is the world’s second most expensive spice – behind the equally versatile and desirable spice of saffron. Exports of vanilla constitute 11 per cent of the country’s total export revenue, or US$289 million – making it the nation’s second-most financially significant export (behind raw nickel, which constitutes 23 per cent, or US$568 million). The U.S.A. is the biggest importer of Madagascan-grown vanilla (at 37 per cent of its total vanilla export), followed by France (23 per cent) and Germany (14 per cent). The International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) place Madagascar’s GDP (PPP) per capita at just US$1,560, making it one of the poorest countries in the world. Paradoxically, its unemployment rate is amongst the lowest in the world. For the 80,000 Madagascan vanilla growers, and those positively impacted by the profits it generates towards the economy, vanilla truly is the ‘spice of life’.

Madagascan vanilla is primarily grown in the northern region of Madagascar, and more specifically in the SAVA region (formed by the districts of Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar, and Andapa). The region is home to just over one million inhabitants, residing in an area slightly larger than the size of Djibouti, and 60 per cent of its people rely on the exportation of vanilla for their livelihood. The area is comparatively wealthy, but with this wealth tied to the global price of vanilla, sharp fluctuations in productivity and prices have a significant impact on the people of the region (in addition to the fortunes of the country). Productivity within the region is significantly impacted by the occurrence of cyclones, and Madagascar is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural disasters. The Category 5 Cyclone Gafilo (March 2004) and most recently the Category 4 Cyclone Enawo (March 2017) proved particularly disastrous, resulting in the loss of many lives.

As noted by the I.M.F., Cyclone Enawo wiped out 100 per cent of the vanilla plantations, and 80 per cent of rice crops in the northern region (p. 16). Due to the global reliance on Madagascar as the source for natural vanilla production, global prices soared. In the last three years, speculation in the natural vanilla market has pushed prices up three-fold (conservatively), to approximately US$600 per kilogram. Georges Geeraerts, President of Madagascar’s Group of Vanilla Exporters, claims that prices peaked to an unprecedented figure of between US$600 and US$750 per kilogram – from a 2015 price of US$100 per kilogram. In a country with such a high poverty rate, this significant spike in growth has resulted in the emergence of cartels, unscrupulous trading practices, and theft. The Madagascan government have implemented measures to curtail theft: vanilla cannot be transported at night, and those found stealing vanilla pods face hefty penalties (p. 145); however, with profits to be made by acting outside of the law, those with a penchant for vice are likely to employ more surreptitious methods to evade capture.

Featured image | Madagascar vanilla beans: Augustine Fou | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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