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Vanilla sex-Hand pollination in Madagascar

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Madagascar and its Vanilla capital Sambava, was witnessing the hand pollination of (Vanilla planifoliaBourbon 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.

Vanilla sex

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.

 

Dan

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An East African Aromatic Adventure

With only a day left in Africa, I feel I need to offer a brief overview of my latest aromatic trip just to keep everyone abreast. Once back in Canada I will write in detail about this last trip to Madagascar and Kenya. So much has happened during these past three weeks and so many things have come together, it has been difficult finding time to write.

Madagascar Vanilla, a rare Elemi, and an improv distillation

Madagascar was beautiful. I am coming home Monday with Vanilla absolute, Vanilla beans, Rare Madagascar Elemi resin, (Canarium madagascariensis), and likely 1 of only two liters of Madagascar Elemi essential oil in  the world.

In Madagascar I travelled with someone just as dedicated to fair trade and sustainable aromatics as myself. Two weeks travelling, smelling, distilling and talking, was a perfect introduction between my new partner in crime, Marco Billi and myself. Some things just can’t be conveyed via email.

We pooled distillation equipment from Canada and italy and put our distillation and improvisation skills to the test. We already have a handful of new  international projects in the works. Lacking a common language was not as great a barrier to communication as I thought it would be. A shared passion for nature lent us common ground. Bourbon Vanilla beans,  Vanilla Absolute, Madagascar Elemi resin and essential oil are some of the Madagascar treasures I’m bringing back home.

Madagascar-Ylang Ylang, Vanilla and Elemi

Kenya. the Samburu, Frankincense, and the “Squirting Perfume Tree”

Though my visit to Kenya was shortened by a cancelled flight in Madagascar and a scramble to buy a new ticket to Kenya, my stay with Andre and Maria of Indigenous Collective has been extremely productive with new developments in our work with the Samburu tribe and the fair trade platform we are setting up for them.

We have now identified some unusual Boswellia and Commiphora trees and discovered valuable fragrance and medicinal compounds in the “Squirting Perfume Tree”, (Commiphora Rostrata). Andre has developed an easy, sustainable method of extracting the volatile oils from under its bark, and with time, we hope to market it and generate an income stream for the remote Samburu tribe.

 Indigenous Collective’s back yard

Somalia-Fair trade, sustainable co-op harvested resins arrive in Hamilton. Patience pays off

On the subject of fragrant resins, my long-awaited shipment of fresh co-op harvested Somali resins finally arrived.. After 7 months of setbacks and roadblocks they are in the shop. As with many new ventures and projects, the beginning is always the hardest and presents the most challenges.

Since our first conversations 2 years ago and birth of the first harvester co-op, we have amalgamated  with another young Somali co-op wIth similar ideals and goals of implementing fair trade and sustainable practices. The Barako co-op signs yearly contracts with 11 village elders, guaranteeing full transparency, a percent of profits going back to the harvester’s communities and infrastructure in exchange for exclusive rights and a commitment to sell their resins.

Barako has also started a nursery, propagating the heavily tapped Boswellias with branch cuttings which will be planted in the wild with their kin and stewarded by the harvesters. This not only ensures a thriving species which is struggling and suffering decline in other harvesting countries, but also ensures a stable income for the harvesters.

Selling directly to the West via the co-op is a challenge from a logistic point of view, but it bypasses the chain of middlemen who buy the resins at the lowest possible price, leaving the harvesters struggling to make ends meet and often leaving them indebted to the middlemen and brokers by pre-selling the next season’s harvest at rock bottom prices out of desperation.

I have to give special credit to my helper Joanne who is not only running the business single-handedly while I’m in Africa, but took upon herself to get the Somali resins quickly released by Canada Customs, avoiding ongoing storage fees, and in the shop, packaged and ready to ship. If I haven’t said it recently, I am indeed a fortunate man. Thank you Joanne!

Somali resins, before and after their long journey

As it stands in the shop now, and while they last, we finally have –

All traded fairly and with an eye to sustainability.

That’s it for now. I will write in more detail when I’m back in Canada.

 

Dan

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Lollygagging with Lemurs

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.

We need to rebalance the riches in the world so everyone benefits when we make a purchase, not just our huge corporations and middlemen and start taking care of the planet’s ecosystems before we run out of these precious commodities. Can you believe that we have destroyed between 60% and 80% of Madagascar’s forests and wildlife habitats already?! 

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.

Joanne??

Joanne

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.

joannshopcrop2
Employee of the year, helper and apprentice Jo. Be nice to her while I’m away. 🙂

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.

Sorting Frankincense Kenya 2016
The whole family pitches in to sort the Frankincense-Kenya 2016-Photo M. Kalliokowski

That’s about it for now. I will keep everyone updated here when internet is available

I’m off to do some undergarment shopping then.

 

Dan

lord-siva-on-his-tao
I will introduce this image formally in the future. For now let’s say it is drawn by Jane Adams, a talented, artist, poet, magician, mystic and friend. You can see her work at janeadamsart.wordpress.com and be sure to check out Aquariel from which this image is borrowed.
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Chocolate dreams, Vanilla beans, Cinnamon, Cloves and Lemurs-Madagascar 2016

 

Grading Vanilla beans
Grading Bourbon Vanilla beans in Madagascar

I have been offered the opportunity to spend two weeks working in Madagascar this October. Short notice and an unexpected expense, but full of potential. I will stay with Vanilla farmers, distil an unusual Elemi, and look at creating value-added products and direct sales that will benefit harvesters, farmers, and their communities. If I can get myself there.

Madagascar is the world’s largest supplier of Bourbon Vanilla and provides us a good portion of our Cloves, Cinnamon, Peppercorns, Ginger and other spices. It is also home to some of the world’s finest Cacao and unique resin-bearing trees that grow nowhere else. All in all a paradise for perfumers, herbalists, apothecaries, distillers and the aromatically inclined.

vanilla-pods-ready-for-picking
Almost ripe Vanilla beans

Traditionally, the trade in medicinal and aromatic plants is profit driven with a focus on the bottom line alone. Little thought is given to fair trade practices that benefit harvesters, farmers and their communities. Sadly, there is also a great lack of foresight when it comes to sustainable harvesting in the wild, and agricultural practices that preserve or benefit the local ecological balance.

We are slowly eroding our forests and natural landscapes, losing not only our medicinal and aromatic species, but our wildlife through mismanagement. Madagascar is home to some of the most unusual and unique wildlife on the planet and already losing species through our carelessness. As with my ongoing work with harvesters in East Africa, my goal is to create or source both fair trade and sustainable aromatics and provide them as directly as I can from the harvesters/farmers to my customers.

Since for the most part, I fund my life and all my projects through sales in my Etsy shop, an unexpected trip means getting creative with sales. To this end, I am taking advantage of the shop’s coupon and discount code option to see if I can get enough money together to pay for this trip in the next couple of weeks. It’s short notice and a gamble, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. If I can’t make it to Madagascar this October, that’s OK too and I will definitely visit in the near future.

I am offering a rare 10% discount in the shop for the next 2 weeks. You can use it as often as you like, share it with friends or family and pass it on. The discount code is Madagascar2016  and you will be prompted to type it in at checkout. Here is a link to the shop-Apothecary’s Garden-

After publishing this post I have received numerous comments that asked for the total amount I need for this project and requests to make available an option to donate rather than purchase something from my shop.

I need a minimum of $2,000.00 cover the cost of tickets and some of the basic expenses while I am in Madagascar. In response to the second request I am inserting a Paypal “Donate” button below and in the sidebar of the blog.

If I do get to Madagascar this October, I promise to do my best to post pictures when internet is available, and of course, on my return there will no doubt be aromatic treats circulating among my customers and internet friends.

A deep and warm thank you in advance for everyone’s support for my work, both financial and moral. I could do none of this without you.

Dan
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P.S. After you donate through PayPal, you will receive a receipt on behalf of New Dawn Herbal Apothecary. This is the brick and mortar version of Apothecary’s Garden, it is one and the same though the names are different. Dan