When we think about the vanilla going into our coffee, cakes, or ice cream, we don’t often give it a second thought. We might even spoon in a little extra sometimes because it’ll make our food taste that much better. But the volatile vanilla trade is worth a bit more thought.
Madagascar vanilla beans represent the world’s highest quality vanilla beans. There are about 80,000 vanilla farms throughout Madagascar, together responsible for over 80% of the world’s supply of vanilla. Many global food companies rely on Madagascar vanilla beans for their bottom line, and vanilla is a considerable part of the country’s agricultural exports as well.
So when category-4 Cyclone Enawo struck the island nation in March 2017, it took a huge chunk out of Madagascar’s infrastructure. It was the strongest to hit the island in 13 years, killing 96 people, displacing over 434,000 others, and causing over $50 million in damages. Vanilla crops were destroyed, causing prices to spike to over $600 per kilogram the following year (it hovered around $100 per kilogram just two years prior). And since it takes anywhere from 2-4 years for vanilla crops to mature, many vanilla farmers who replanted after Enawo are just starting to see the fruits of their labor this year.
Painstaking Repair: CARE and SVI
In response to the 2017 cyclone, humanitarian organizations like the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) flocked to provide relief to stricken areas. CARE collaborated with McCormick, an international flavor company and a major buyer of Madagascan vanilla, to provide shelter, food, and potable water to over 20,000 people. CARE also helped train locals to use native materials to construct cyclone-resistant homes and prepared them to teach the technique to others.
CARE’s other partners include the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative (SVI), an initiative begun in 2015 dedicated to improving the sustainability and quality of vanilla, with special emphasis on Madagascar vanilla beans. Members of SVI include consumer goods manufacturers, global flavor and fragrance companies, and vanilla bean traders. Following Enawo, SVI’s members donated $170,000 to reach 15,000 affected families and 3,000 people. The aim of the yearlong program was to support vanilla farming households by helping to rebuild their agricultural infrastructure and provide long-term food security. Specifically, the program targeted helping women — especially those who head households — with seeds for replanting, new tools, and technical support.
Giving Back to Vanilla Farming Communities
Synergy Flavors, an extracts and flavorings manufacturer, worked with the Madagascar Development Fund to rebuild two new schools in Antohomaro and Farahalana to replace the pair that had been lost due to the 2017 storm. This is the second pair of schools funded by the corporation, after the previous two completed in 2016 near Sambava. These efforts represent Synergy Flavors’s dedication to giving back to the vanilla farming communities on whom they rely so much for their business.
So how are Madagascan vanilla farmers faring today? Well, prices have dropped to about $500 per kilogram, which means that they are slowly but surely replenishing worldwide vanilla supplies. But recovery remains fragile; smaller yet significant storms in 2018 and 2019 have continued to put a dampener on Madagascar’s economy.
However, if more global humanitarian efforts and vanilla-centered businesses step up to aid the country with sustainable initiatives (like cyclone-proof infrastructure), reconstruction, and overall fiscal support, they could truly make a difference in the lives and productivity of vanilla farmers in Madagascar. Those responsible for that special hint of vanilla in our sweet treats — a flavoring we often take for granted — deserve nothing less.