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.
Cured Vanilla beans are traditionally tied in bundles with Rafia.
Vanilla Flower. Most definitely an Orchid!
Talking to Vanilla farmers .
Vanilla in various stages of flower and fruit.
Vanilla flowers and beans an progressive stages of maturity.
The best quality Vanilla beans should wrap around your finger without breaking.
For more information on the plight of the Vanilla farmers in Madagascar, here is an excellent video.
Well, I have my tickets to Madagascar. Now I deal with the anxiety of Oh My God what have I done, what am I forgetting to pack, and make sure you buy new underwear in case the plane goes down in a ball of flame.
A huge, warm thank you to everyone who contributed to this project through their donations and purchases in the Apothecary’s Garden Shop. Buying this ticket is not something I could have accomplished without the support of a community that shares in a vision of fair trade and sustainable practices around the world. I don’t know what awaits on the other end of this flight, but there seems to be no lack in the world for little opportunities to make things better and help correct a system that has revealed many flaws.
As many of you know, I believe that directly involving more indigenous harvesters, farmers and communities in our global trade will not only raise the quality of our medicinal and aromatic products in the west, greatly improve the quality of life in remote marginalized areas, but can help preserve and nurture our green spaces across the globe. Indigenous people are perfectly positioned to steward their regions and resources. All we need to do is support them.
Besides exploring the rich array of aromatics in Madagascar, meeting farmers, harvesters and exporters, my host and I hope to build a small distillation unit with the goal of training local artisans to produce high quality essential oils and direct more of our Western dollars to their communities.
Since our days of colonisation, our practice is to buy natural resources from third world and developing countries at the cheapest possible price, process and add value to them ourselves, and distribute the wealth and profit among our corporations and middlemen. This approach keeps struggling economies poor and developing countries under-developed. It is a model of business based on western profit alone and we can change it.
The harvesters co-op in Somalia
Photos-Frankincense Frereana, or Maydi growing out of the almost vertical rock walls in Somalia. Sorting and packing Boswellia Carterii, Frereana and Commiphora/Myrrh resins. (Photos courtesy Barako Frankincense co-op.)
On a different note, my Somali co-op managers have notified me their shipment of a wide selection of local resins has finally boarded the plane on its way to Toronto. Keep your eye on the shop. Though I would love to stay here and wait for it, I’ll have to make other arrangements in case it arrives in Canada before I do. If possible I will have Joanne pick it up.
Yes, this is also a good time to officially announce I have a helper. Joanne has been packing and shipping orders, communicating with customers for over 4 months now. She is doing an amazing job and becoming indispensable, (which is a little scary).
I saw her curly salt and pepper hair bobbing down the street from my window one day, and there was something powerfully familiar about her though I had never met her. I went to the back porch to see if she would turn the corner and within 5 minutes she was up the staircase interviewing me for the census. Basically she has worked for me ever since. I remembered her from the future of course.
So, while I am away in exotic countries lollygagging with Lemurs and snorting snuff with the Samburu Mamas, it will be Joanne who takes such good care of your orders. When orders are perfectly packaged and arrive with lightening speed, it will be Joanne you can thank. She goes by the name Jo, or Jojo, or Jojojo when I catch her polishing off the last of my coffee thinking its hers.
The Samburu women’s Frankincense co-op
While booking my ticket to Madagascar, I was able to finance a flight from Madagascar to Kenya so I can also work on the Samburu women’s resin co-op project. This left about enough in the bank for a smallish sandwich. But it felt good. Looked crazy, but felt right.
In Kenya I will post the long-awaited Black and Light Boswellia neglecta to Hamilton. I apologize to everyone for the long wait, but we are still working out logistics and looking for systems that work best for the folks in Kenya. As they say, “All the beginnings are difficult”.
While there, we will distill a test run of Frankincense neglecta and discuss value-added products the women can make with their resins to boost their income. It’s not a lot of time, but I plan to return for a longer visit in January.
That’s about it for now. I will keep everyone updated here when internet is available
I was going to continue sharing my journey in chronological order, Dead Sea, Jerusalem then Ethiopia, but,,,, I had such a great time in Addis Ababa and came back with such amazing treasures and opportunities that I simply couldn’t keep it all under my hat. I am bursting to talk about my finds and the great luck that came my way. Three new and rare types of Frankincense. All native to Ethiopia and each distinctly unique. A supply of their distilled oils and the most heavenly essential oils of Opoponax and Palmarosa on their way here soon.
The trip from Israel to Ethiopia was booked on the fly two days after we arrived in Israel, four days to get organized for it..
For the past couple of years I had researched and hoped one day to visit Ethiopia, make contact with farmers/collectors and suppliers of Civet paste, Myrrh and Frankincense, but until I bought the ticket, it was only a theory. A wisp of a dream that rose and wafted around in my mind with visions of visiting Frankincense trees in Yemen, Dragon’s Blood trees on Socrato island, and vendors sorting grades of fresh harvested Boswellia Carterii/Sacra Frankincense in Oman.
In 2012, while researching Frankincense chemistry and looking for reliable ways of distinguishing between the different types, I discovered the website of another “Apothecary” and teaching garden in Addis Ababa Ethiopia. Not only was there a teaching garden associated with the website, the person who ran the site seemed an accredited expert in Frankincense and African medicinal plants, made and sold herbal products from local plants as I, and was a distiller and supplier of essential oils from those local plants and oleo-resins. Wow!
After arriving in Israel and with only a few days notice, I let him know I would be in Addis Ababa, could we meet? The timing was tight, he had a local trip booked for that week, and was chairing an annual congress of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia. Very tight timing.
In short, I was his guest at the University of Addis Ababa for 2 days, His grad students expanded their social skills and their command of English by babysitting me, (poor guys, I kept disappearing ). I listened to some very interesting presentations on the development and uses of local plant and mineral resources from the perspectives of organic and inorganic chemistry. Most notably I spent time enjoying his laboratory where his students were doing an extraction of Moringa seed, preparing it for chemical analysis, and visiting the specimen gardens on the university grounds. Both these made me feel right at home. Running between laboratory and garden, that’s me!
Our time was limited, but we made the most of it, talking when we could and getting as many of our goals accomplished as our time would allow, while planning a few future projects together. His invitations to dinner at his home where I met his talented wife, Chemist and business partner, were both gracious and productive. It seems quite true that Ethiopians are a very warm, hospitable and generous people based on my week long experiences.
We visited a grassroots resin “supplier” in the the “Mercado”, ( Africa’s largest outdoor market), after dusk. When it was quiet enough so one could actually drive and walk the rocky unpaved roads between the bustling people of the market without being knocked down or running over someone selling on the road, and dark enough so no one would notice the tourist in the car and decide to multiply the price of resins astronomically. This is unfortunately the norm. It is beyond haggling or dickering as in the Mediterranean, where you have a reasonable chance to haggle and actually get a good price even if you are a tourist. There are simply two different price structures, tourist and negotiable.
It felt more like a drug deal in a dark alley. Samples covertly sent back and forth to be approved by me in the dark car and five kilo bags put in the trunk. But boy it was worth it! Fresh fragrant Frankincense resins, each more distinguished than the next.
Boswellia PapyriferaFrankincense is, I believe, the Tigray type. From the North of the country. Used by all Ethiopians in their daily coffee ceremonies throughout the country and purchased in bulk by the church. The essential oil is woody & balsamic with a sweet, haunting feeling, reminiscent of ancient souks and sacred stone churches, with a citrus note that would bridge to other citrus notes perfectly.
Boswellia Rivae Frankincense is from the Ogaden region in the south east and by far the most complex in its scent. It reaches in and moves you from bottom to top.This oil and that of the Neglecta would make precious additions to any perfumers collection. Not true,, they all would!
Boswellia Neglecta Frankincense, (I neglected to ask which region it was from), has a beautiful, creamy rich middle note with a warm balsamic nutty base , yumm. I believe it got its name from not getting classified till much later than the others. Neglected. I will have to research that further. Again, what a unique incense Neglecta makes, and the essential oil is so different than the Boswellia Serrata and Sacra we are all so used to.
All in all, three really unique, unusual and lovely types of Frankincense. Mainly used locally for medicine and ceremony, but as yet not fully recognized or utilized for their broader applications in perfume, cosmetics and mainstream herbal medicine. (I see a face lift for my Frankincense Anti aging creme!)
So,,, I now have a few Kilos of each resin to experiment with, maybe a little to sell, and a few liters of essential oils being distilled and packaged for shipment soon.
I feel very lucky. Blessed. We established some future goals of working together over the next few months to experiment in both our labs, to explore ways we could add value to Ethiopian resources and products, ways we could work together for our mutual benefit while helping a developing country develop. I felt inspired and exited by the creative possibilities bubbling in my brain. We discovered between us we could meet goals we both have had for a while that pertain to improving the viability of refining Civet products. in Ethiopia.
I have been trying to establish a reliable Civet connection in Ethiopia for years. It seems I may have a chance to not only visit a traditional Civet farmer in person, but could be part of the process of analysis, extraction, refinement and marketing of the finished product, (Civetone), which till now was controlled by large foreign companies, while the Ethiopian economy received the minimum benefit in the chain of commerce, supplying only the raw product at the lowest relative price. At the very bottom of the ladder. Feels like a win, win, win situation. My favourite.
Herbal Apothecary, Wildcrafter, Sculptor, Craftsman.
Owner of Apothecary's Garden and Fairtrade Frankincense LTD. Providing a selection of fresh & fair trade, ethical and sustainably harvested Frankincense and Myrrh species, local and exotic fragrance materials, unusual essential oils, Natural perfume ingredients and animal essences. Astrodynamic plant Preparations, Herbal salves, cremes, tinctures and oils.
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A sap for resins, ritual, Sun, Moon and Mother Nature.
A journal about Herbs, plants and processes. Recipes, plant Alchemy and our Relationship with Nature. Natural fragrance and medicine. Astrodynamics, rhythms and cycles, Medical Astrology, traditional Wisdom. Herbs and Healing, Science and Spirit. Oh and moustaches.
Fairtrade Frankincense explores our ancient and modern relationship with Nature's fragrant, medicinal oleoresins and provides a link joining traditional harvesters directly with our western market in fair and mutually beneficial commerce.