Lessons from the Field
As many flavor, fragrance, food and beverage professionals may
know, Madagascan vanilla (Bourbon vanilla, Vanilla planifolia)
is produced on small farms in remote communities with little
electricity, communications and transportation infrastructure.
To engage in sourcing on the ground requires continuous presence, the Symrise team explains, to learn where the beans come
from and what the farmers’ lives are like.
While Symrise maintains a sales office in the Madagascan
capital, Antananarivo, the company has established an extraction and warehouse site in the northern growing area of
Vohemar. This will soon be moved even closer to the growers,
who themselves tend to be established near rivers. Building or
maintaining such a facility is a tremendous undertaking, due
to the aforementioned lack of transportation and supply infrastructure. A single missing stainless steel screw, the Symrise
team says, can derail a project.
Meanwhile, engaging with these farmers involves educating
a small core of locals on fertilization, harvest and other farming
best practices in order to improve
yields. This core of farmers is then
charged with spreading this education throughout local communities.
Information is distributed verbally—using multiple languages,
including French and at least two
Malagasy dialects—and through
illustrated brochures depicting
best practices. Ultimately, this
education reaches thousands of
farmers, who are tracked via a
Relationships between sourcing companies and growers are
tied with long-term agreements
that encourage patient, diligent
gro wing practices. Farmers are not
obligated to sign contracts, but do
receive rice credits to encourage
patience in the growing cycle. This
process is supervised with company representatives who live in
the local growing locales.
The business, the Symrise team
stresses, is built on trust and getting farmers invested in the
project. Farmers treat their vanilla trees as their bank account,
the core of their income. Without sustainable assurances, farmers are likely to harvest beans too early whenever they need
money. In addition, price spikes can give rise to fly-by-night
producing regions both in Madagascar and in other countries.
These growers, pursuing short-lived pricing increases, tend to
drop out of the market once prices moderate, creating further
price and supply instability. Within Madagascar, growers facing plummeting prices may inadvertently worsen the situation
by growing and harvesting more vanilla. In times of turmoil,
some farmers will switch to alternative crops, including cocoa,
clove and coffee.
Vanilla is essentially a gamble for Madagascan farmers, the
Symrise team explains. Between the blossoming of the vanilla
flowers and the time the farmers receive their money from the
sale of the green beans is more than a year. Pricing can change
drastically in that time and encourage premature harvesting
or even replacement of vanilla with other, more economically
stable crops. Supporting farmers and paying a fair price pre-
vents this. Under the backward-integrated process, farmers
engage in significant caretaking of the crops during cultiva-
tion and harvest.
Madagascan vanilla (Bourbon vanilla, Vanilla planifolia) is produced on
small farms in remote communities with little electricity, communications or
The company continues to apply the lessons it has learned to
other core competencies, including mint, citrus, meat, taste
enhancers, red fruit, vegetables (onion), lavender, ylang-ylang,
vetiver and shea butter. These ingredients will find their way
into the biggest application areas, including oral care, beverage, savory, sweet and dairy. This, says the Symrise team, is just
the starting point.
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