Madagascar: the « green gold » rush and its perverse effects

Hery Andriamiandra et Jacques Leroueil

Very high, the current price of vanilla is doing business in Madagascar, the world’s leading producer. But behind the windfall effect, there are many negative consequences. Decryption.

« One vanilla ice cream for every accompanied child », « Two scoops of vanilla ice cream for the price of one! ». In this summer season, glacier craftsmen compete in ingenuity to attract vacationers crushed by heat. A craze for frozen pleasures that resonates like a sweet melody to the ears of the farmers surrounding Sambava, the Madagascan vanilla capital. And for good reason: at nearly 500 dollars per kilogram, this spice is now one of the most expensive in the world after saffron, with a price almost as high as that of silver (545 dollars/kilo). This is a godsend for Madagascar, which represents more than 80% of the global offer, and whose production has been flirting for the past two years with 2,000 tonnes. Indeed, although current prices may be below the stratospheric levels reached in 2017 after Cyclone Enawo (up to more than $600 per kilogram… compared to $30 again in 2012), they still represent a real fortune in a country where annual per capita income is capped at $471, placing the Red Island in fifth place among the poorest nations in the world after South Sudan, Burundi, Malawi and the Central African Republic.
As a result, in the streets of Sambava province, there are countless 4×4s of merchants enriched by the trade of precious spices and the gleaming motorcycles of « son à papa », who slalom in the middle of potholes.

The market street in Sambava, the vanilla capital of the world. © T. Bernardo

An equally noticeable wealth effect on trade balance figures: with $894 million in value shipped abroad in 2017, vanilla is now the Big Island’s leading export product, far ahead of nickel ($414 million) and textiles ($288 million). From perfumery to pastry, sodas, yoghurts, ice creams and other less suspicious consumer products such as laundry, tobacco and medicines, demand seems unlikely to dry up, with vanilla flavour remaining the most loved and used in the world.

From vine to pod, a long-term task

However, on closer examination, vanilla fever is far from being a blessing. In this Malagasy remake of the California gold rush, the setting is always the same: the insolent success of a small minority stirs the lust of a crowd of conscripts, who (sur)live by expediency while waiting to touch a hypothetical jackpot. Northeast of « Mada » in the Sava region, where the vast majority of Malagasy vanilla is produced, poverty is as endemic as in the rest of the country, and the population earns on average one euro a day.

The Sava region (in red), the main production area for Malagasy vanilla, is one of the twenty-two regions of Madagascar. Its name is an acronym formed from those of its four districts: Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar and Andapa. Located in the north-eastern part of the island, it belongs to the province of Diego Suarez and has Sambava as its capital (source: Wikipedia).
Credit: Sadalmelik

However, if everyone wants to enjoy the vanilla vein, its culture is far from being a sinecure. Unlike other regions of the world such as South America (including Mexico, where the orchid originates), where fertilization is carried out by melipone or Melipona – a kind of bee without a sting – in Madagascar, in the absence of sufficiently effective fertilizing animals, the orchid must be pollinated manually1. The plant produces flowers only after three to five years of cultivation. The flowering period lasts two to three months during which producers must pollinate the flowers daily. As these usually open at night and for a single day, their manual or artificial fertilization must take place before noon. It is then necessary to wait eight to nine months before the fruits (the famous « pods ») reach maturity. Once picked, the pods are « prepared » according to a traditional processing process that includes three main stages: initial heat treatment of the green fruits (scalding and steaming, lasting 3 min and 24 to 72 hours respectively), drying to stabilize the product (complete drying takes 2 to 3 months), and finally, refining in a confined atmosphere (a process comparable to the ageing of wine and also spread over several months). Preparation may take up to a year and a half of work to ensure that the pods reach their full aromatic… and financial potential. This is particularly the case for Gourmet vanilla, which represents about 10% of the market.

1According to a technique that made a slave from Reunion Island famous, Edmond Albius, who had developed it in 1841.

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