One of the highlights of my recent trip to Madagascar and its Vanilla capital Sambava, was witnessing the hand pollination of (Vanilla planifolia–Bourbon Vanilla flowers.
Originally from Mexico and central America, their natural pollinator, a species of Melipona bee, is nowhere to be found in East Africa and these beautiful flowers will bear no Vanilla beans unless each one is carefully pollinated by hand.
The hidden parts of the very vulvic and seriously sensuous Orchid flower are gently coaxed out, breaking the membrane separating anther and pollen from the stigma. A small flap is lifted and the anther pressed against the stigma while transferring seminal pollen with a sliver of bamboo. The act is completed in a matter of seconds and finished with a kiss of fingers as the flower is pressed firmly to insure full contact and fertilization. Flowers must be pollinated within 12 hours of opening adding a sense of urgency to the process.
Vanilla plants love the elevation, temperature and humidity of this area and flourish everywhere as long as they have partial shade and something to climb on. Flowers open one at a time in a raceme or cluster that can bear up to 20 beans , ( one a day). The beans in each cluster are of varying maturity and will ripen in the same order as their flowers blossomed. Flowering takes place over a period of 3 weeks and thus, traditional harvesting of fully ripe pods is of the same duration.
A change of management
Recently the government of Madagascar teamed up with Chinese investors who demand the beans be harvested within a one week window to lower their costs. Since they control the market with full government support, there is not much the harvesters can do but comply.
This is only one of a few critical changes instigated by the brokers. Revenue from curing the Vanilla beans has been taken out of the farmer’s hands as well, and now all beans are purchased green and processed by the brokers with cheap local labor. (Vanilla beans have no scent or Vanillin until they are cured). Needless to say, the farmers are not happy with these new rules and many are struggling to make ends meet or turning to other crops to make up for the lost revenue.
Foreign investments in developing countries can often trickle down to communities and local economies, but in this case the farmers are not the beneficiaries. Selling directly to the West and bypassing the brokers may be the only way they can keep their traditions, standards and businesses afloat. Starting with 2 farmers, my hope is to directly market Vanilla beans and Vanilla products to my customers and gather a growing number of farmers over time. Sometimes , you have to start small. In fact, I believe many small acts can add up to big changes.
For more information on the plight of the Vanilla farmers in Madagascar, here is an excellent video.