Vanilla Farming, Climate Change and Community Efforts in Madagascar

August 15, 2022

This summer, the DLC-SAVA Conservation project at the Duke Lemur Center is leading a Bass Connections project on bicultural sustainability in Madagascar. Two student team members, including Jane Slentz-Kesler, a junior at Macalester College in Minnesota, and Maggie Poulos, a second-year master's student at the Sanford School of Public Policy, recently shared updates on their research in the field.

Jane Slentz-Kesler joined the DLC-SAVA Conservation project after receiving a competitive summer research grant to conduct independent research in Madagascar. In addition to assisting with the social sciences aspects of the project, Jane is exploring the diverse landscape in the communities and agroecosystem to understand more about how local people use the land and how their knowledge about local resources and perspectives on resource management contribute to their land use practices.

Maggie Poulos is a lead on the social sciences aspects of the project and is examining livelihood strategies of rural communities in the SAVA region and their perspectives on how to successfully manage their resources. She is especially interested in how vanilla agriculture impacts livelihood strategies and potential microfinance interventions to help people save money and get loans to start their agricultural businesses.

Guarding Vanilla in the Madagascar Countryside

By Jane Slentz-Kesler

What an afternoon! It all started when Olina and I were drawing a map, trying to locate different crops and farmlands. We’re a part of the same research team this summer, living in a remote village in Madagascar called Ambodivoara.

Jane Slentz-Kesler
Jane Slentz-Kesler (left)

I’m currently a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Olina is a recent graduate from CURSA University, the main university in the SAVA region of Madagascar, but we’re both working with the Duke Lemur Center-SAVA Conservation project this summer. Our research team is especially interested in local livelihoods, namely vanilla cultivation, agroecology and financial security.

Vast Madagascar fields
Olina leading the way through the farms and fields

Olina and I were studying a mountainside collection of crops when a certain stream piqued our interest. Olina has some family in this village, and her brother Velin generously offered to take us on a tour of this stream and the mountainside. Best tour ever!

Olina and Velin standing with fruits
Olina and her brother Velin with fruits and sugarcane straight from the fields

We crossed the river and walked through the fields, teetering along the tops of rice-field terrace walls and stopping at each different crop so I could take pictures. There were peanuts, soy beans, papaya, carrots, ginger, pineapple, cassava, raffia palms covered in fruit, rice (of course), bananas, lemongrass, a spicy flower that made my mouth feel like it was vibrating, green beans, jackfruit, lychee, coffee, vanilla, sugarcane, some fruit that looked like a big avocado but had a sweet-tart-esque inside, yams and maybe more … you get the idea.

Papaya and soy beans
Papaya tree full of fruit (left) and soy beans that are commonly grown in the cold season (right)

Olina and Velin were handing me fruits to try left and right, or plucking leaves from a plant that looked like general shrubbery to me and saying “Eat this! Have you tried [this fruit]?” or “What’s the English word for [that fruit]?” I would laugh and explain that we don’t have those in the United States and that I don’t know if there is even an English word for that fruit.

Peanuts are a staple crope
Peanuts are a staple crop

The slope got steeper and we were climbing steps carved straight into the earth. I looked back over my shoulder and saw the beautiful village-scape, nestled in between mountains on all sides. The path thinned ahead of us and I had to put some pep in my step to keep up with Velin. We pushed through weeds (or were they crops?), whipping our ankles and making little paper cuts on our arms, but I was too excited to care, because Velin told us we were going to see vanilla beans!

Jane navigating the narrow paths while also carrying a sample of fresh ginger
Jane navigating the narrow paths while carrying a sample of fresh ginger

We descended to a little stream with big raffia palms growing straight out of the streambed and picked our way into the shadier, denser forest. I felt a sting on my ankle and squashed a fat mosquito. I looked up and there they were! Snaking around a supporting tree were several “pieds” or “feet” of vanilla.

A vanilla vine snakes around its support tree
A vanilla vine snakes around its support tree

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen vanilla growing  I know I certainly hadn’t  but it looks nothing like you’d expect. Though it’s an orchid, it looks like a very thick vine, almost like a succulent, and it grows big, flat and heavy leaves. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see a couple of green vanilla beans hanging from the stalk. We were very lucky, as you could have probably guessed from the pictures.

Green vanilla beans
Green vanilla beans, almost ready to be harvested and then cured, or sold directly in the market

Vanilla straight from the vine is very green. It takes curing and processing to transform them into the ready-to-use brown vanilla beans that most of us are used to seeing. We’ve heard from many villagers during our research interviews that they would like to receive trainings on vanilla growing and processing to make the crop more lucrative.

Though vanilla is perhaps the most profitable crop in this region, it can also be quite contentious, even dangerous, to grow. Theft is such a high concern that people build small houses amid their vanilla plots here on the side of the mountain to guard the vanilla throughout the night. One villager told us that the biggest challenge with selling vanilla is how stressful the whole process is. This villager said they don’t even eat sometimes during the pollination season and that there’s nothing that can ease the stress about vanilla growing.

Farmers' shelter
Temporary shelter made for farmers to stay in their field and guard their vanilla

Olina humors me as I try to get the perfect shot of a vanilla bean while Velin disappears up into the tops of trees to harvest various fruits, which come raining down. We hike back to our side of the mountain and I gaze down at the village with small smoke columns rising from people’s cooking fires, the terraced rice fields leading up the mountainsides, the forested creeks which are chock-full of fruits and vegetables and the river that winds through all of this landscape.

Rural Madagascar

I’m suddenly hit with a sense of how interconnected it all is. I also feel a little stab of sadness, wondering what will come of this place with so many impending dangers of our rapidly globalizing and warming world. I try to remind myself that all I can do is to be here now and do what I can. And so, I follow Olina and Velin back down the mountain, bubbling with energy and awe, rushing home to all my new friends with my camera full of pictures and my arms full of fruit.

Empowering the Vanilla Supply Chain from the Ground Up

By Maggie Poulos

Women working in the vanilla cooperative
Women sort vanilla beans

Visiting the warehouse of a vanilla exporting company smells exactly how you’d imagine. Vanilla’s warm and familiar aroma was the first to greet me as I approached the front steps of Madagascar Spice Company (MSC) based in Sambava. Sitting down with Dylan Randriamihaja, the founder and CEO of MSC, I wanted to learn more about the vanilla supply chain.

As a part of my project’s social science subteam, I focus on researching vanilla farming and opportunities for alternative livelihoods. Through Duke Lemur Center and SAVA’s regional university CURSA, our team of researchers in Ambodivoara has interviewed vanilla farmers, but now I have the unique opportunity to see the second stop on vanilla’s global journey – vanilla exporting companies.

Vanilla cooperative in Madagascar
Vanilla cooperative in Madagascar

In 2018, MSC helped found a cooperative of over 2500 vanilla farmers, through which the company now sources all of its vanilla. A major key to the creation of the cooperative lies in organic certification – without a formal entity, such as a cooperative, it’s nearly impossible for an exporting company to retain its organic standards. Kilos and kilos of vanilla beans are in stored rice bags, all sourced from this cooperative. In the photo to the left, they are ready to be weighed and recorded, before the sorting of the beans takes place.

A group of women have the job of sorting all the vanilla beans that come through the warehouse. The beans have been cured or dried in the sun, until they turned their dark brown color. Beans are sorted a couple of different ways, most importantly, by size and if there are any impurities on the bean. For example, if a bean is split down the middle, it wouldn’t be categorized as a “gourmet bean”.

In the photo below, I am holding the finished product – a bundle of gourmet vanilla beans, ready to be boxed and shipped abroad. The bundle is wrapped in a string of raffia, a palm that produces leaves often used for Malagasy weaving. Looking down at my hands, I am reminded of the hard work that has brought this bundle of vanilla beans to this point. But they are not done yet and will soon reach their final destination!

Holding a batch of vanilla
Holding a bundle of gourmet vanilla beans

As I head back to Ambodivoara this week to re-join our village research team, I’m thinking more and more about how local vanilla farmers are the foundation of the global vanilla supply chain. How can the DLC- SAVA Conservation project and CURSA University support the strengthening of this foundation? Can we establish new relationships between these local farmers and vanilla exporting companies in Sambava? With a dual focus on our little village and the rest of the world, our research seeks to empower the vanilla supply chain from the ground – or the bean – up!

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