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

Séchage des gousses de vanille.

Apart from this tedious work, we must also count on the clemency of Mother Nature, because in this region of the Indian Ocean, the hurricane season often takes its toll… The infamous Enawo, which struck the Sava region in March 2017, killed 81 people, destroyed more than 250,000 homes and damaged three-quarters of the vanilla orchard then in production.

« Scams, crimes and botany »

But beyond climatic and environmental hazards, other threats point out, much more damaging to the sector. « As harvests approach, when vanilla fields are worth the most, this potential wealth inevitably attracts its share of thieves, individuals who will do anything to get the pods back, » explains a local observer under cover of anonymity. The soaring prices have led to the development of petty crime (robberies, assaults) that sometimes turns to tragedy, as communities have more confidence in the popular justice system than in the police to protect their plantations. The national media occasionally report cases of people suspected or convicted of theft who have been stoned or lynched or, in some cases, killed. In 2017, the Malagasy authorities reported eleven murders of vanilla thieves on the island, usually by angry farmers determined to take the law into their own hands.
In order to protect themselves against such theft, more and more farmers who do not have the means to secure their plots are opting for early harvesting of pods, which results in a significant drop in the level of vanillin – the molecule that gives rise to the aromatic quality of the spice -, the aromatic quintessence of the fruit being reached in the last months, weeks and days of ripening. This ratio, normally between 1.8 and 2.4%, can then fall below 1%, significantly altering the quality of the « finished » product. Another practice involved is the vacuum packaging of pods kept from one harvest to another – although prohibited by the State since 2016 – which allows moisture to be kept longer and thus increases the weight of the fruit in order to obtain better prices. This method also affects the vanillin content, and also promotes the development of chemicals and moulds that damage the aromatic profile of the spice. When contacted, one operator in the sector admits that « producers have the unfortunate habit of using unorthodox methods to resell at the maximum price, at the beginning of the official marketing ».

It is a fact: the fever of « green gold » turns heads and with it, the whole vanilla production system is gradually disrupting, with farmers harvesting far too early, processors processing too early and traders selling lower quality vanilla to exporters who have no other alternative given the country’s monopoly situation. A bad image that reflects on the entire sector and makes Gianna Palmaro, director of the APLV Vanilla structure, specialized in vanilla and Malagasy spices from cultivation to distribution, say that « the actors of the sector[must get better organized to be able to] present a premium product ». This is what they have started to do, through the creation of a national vanilla platform (PNV), responsible for giving the queen of spices her credentials by launching an official harvest opening date and improving the traceability of production through the multiplication of controls and identification of planters. In 2018, the Sava’s exporters set up an association with a fund to distribute a bonus to people who denounced bad practices. When questioned by our RFI colleagues, Fayol Makboul, the general manager of Hachmann Madagascar Export explained that « if the neighbours prepare vanilla before the opening of the campaign, we denounce them. They are brought to justice. A system which, if it seems to be proving its worth with the observed decrease in the number of thefts and complaints recorded, inevitably generates a climate of widespread suspicion, which is highly detrimental to the quality of life as a whole.

Malagasy vanilla has yet to find its way

Finally, as Yves Jégourel, Associate Professor at the University of Bordeaux, Deputy Director of the Cyclops Circle – a research company specialising in the analysis of world commodity markets – and Senior Fellow of the Moroccan think tank Policy Center for the New South, points out, « the good news[high vanilla prices in the short term, NDLR] is not really necessarily good news in the long term ». The researcher notes that « one of the historical reasons for Malagasy domination is economic: in a national context of high poverty, activity can be maintained when production in other countries becomes in deficit ». In other words, Madagascar is the only vanilla-producing country that is « poor enough » to accept low price levels in any circumstance. On the other hand, the other richer producing countries tend to reinvest in the sector only when the price curve (re)becomes interesting. This is precisely the case today and at the current price level, there is no doubt that competition will increase. Similarly, the rise in vanilla prices makes it mechanically more attractive for any more affordable substitute. This is particularly the case for cloves, whose essence, rich in eugenol, also makes it possible to produce natural vanilla flavour, or synthetic vanillin2, which is particularly popular with manufacturers during periods of high prices, when they seek to reduce costs to maintain their margins.
These are all threats of which the Malagasy authorities are fully aware. In June, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Handicrafts, Lantosoa Rakotomalala, brought together producers and vanilla exporters from the Big Island in order to discuss with them the sustainable solutions to be put in place to avoid being overtaken by other competitors known for their origins and the quality of their beans (Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, Tahiti, Mexico, Uganda, Reunion Island, Comoros…). But in the end, the real dilemma to be resolved is elsewhere: to take advantage of the extra wealth generated by the vanilla sector in good times, without being overly dependent on the volatile nature of these incomes or suffering the associated negative social consequences. An undoubtedly complex equation….

2Today, it is estimated that the synthetic vanillin market is almost 10 times larger than that of its natural counterpart. The main advantage of this substitute is its abundance and stable price, not to mention that the molecule costs fifteen times less to produce than natural vanillin. According to some operators in the sector, if the quality of natural vanilla does not improve, it could eventually be replaced by synthetic vanillin…