How One Island Produces Over 80% of the World’s Vanilla

By Kristie | April 10, 2020

If you remember the Madagascar film franchise from the early 2000s, chances are you recall the quirky yet inaccurate portrayal of wildlife in that country. (I myself was dismayed to learn that there are no penguins in the real Madagascar.) It shouldn’t come as a surprise, though; the island nation’s subtropical climate is unsuited for penguins, and — contrary to the Madagascar movies — there are no lions, giraffes, zebras, or hippos either.

Madagascar: Quick Facts

So where is Madagascar, anyway? It’s located 700 miles off the coast of Mozambique, in southeast Africa, and is the world’s fourth-largest island (after Greenland, New Guinea, and Borneo) at 226,658 square miles. The national language is Malagasy, which is also what its people are called. The island’s terrain is primarily made up of plateaus, hills, and plains. Its hot, rainy season runs from November to April, while its cool, dry period lasts from May to October. Major exports include coffee, cloves, rice, and — the reason for this blog — vanilla.

Vanilla’s Colonial History

Madagascar vanilla beans make up over 80% of the world’s supply of vanilla. You would think, with such an impressive statistic, that vanilla must be native to Madagascar. In reality, the spice originates from Mexico and was brought to Madagascar during the heyday of global imperial expansion. Spanish colonists sent Mexican vanilla to Europe, where people acquired a taste for it. Soon many parts of the world whose climates likely favored vanilla cultivation desired to grow the valuable crop, but they failed because the Melipona bee — the specific bee species that had adapted to pollinate vanilla orchids — was only to be found in Mexico.

How Vanilla Came to Madagascar

In 1841, a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius — confined to the French colonial island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean — found a solution to the lack of natural pollinators outside Mexico. Maneuvering with a toothpick-like stick, Albius pushed the male and female parts of the bloom together, effectively hand-pollinating the first vanilla flower. This method suddenly made vanilla growing outside of Mexico possible, especially in hot, humid climates like Réunion’s. But since that island is small, colonists there soon looked to a much bigger island less than 600 miles to the west as a haven to mass-produce the spice: Madagascar.

But Madagascar didn’t go from producing 0% to 80% of the world’s vanilla overnight. Up until the 1980s, the country had been steadily producing about 30%. This was when the government held a tight rein on the price of vanilla; the average price fluctuated between $50 and $60 per kilogram. However, due to large unpaid debts to the World Bank, Madagascar was forced to relinquish government controls on prices in the mid-1990s. From there, damaging cyclones and rising global demand for natural vanilla has kept prices high and volatile, and supply relatively low. 

The Vanilla-Rich Sava Region

Fast-forward to today, where Sava — the highest-producing vanilla region on the island — has seen over 100 years of cultivating the crop. Such a lasting legacy has given farmers generations of knowledge to rely and build upon. Growers in other countries attempt to enter the vanilla trade when prices are high, but without the in-depth knowledge of the growing, pollination, and curing processes that Malagasy farmers have, these new growers risk failure or inferior vanilla yields.

In many parts of Madagascar, vanilla has unmistakably become part of the local economy. Entire villages dedicated to the growing and exporting of vanilla, like Belambo in the Sava region, have seen an economic boom with the recent surge of demand for vanilla. Yearly figures are hard to estimate because the trade is done by cash and lacks state oversight, but they are expected to be in the hundreds of millions per year.

Making Madagascar Vanilla Beans Sustainable

Farmers that are unaware of the high price of vanilla on the market are especially vulnerable when vanilla prices swing to the upside. Buyers and other middlemen can take advantage of these growers and pocket the lion’s share of what can be a very large profit. That’s why it’s crucial for international food companies to protect the people along every stage of their supply chain, starting at the beginning, with the producers of Madagascar vanilla beans.

For example, a number of French food and utilities companies have invested $10 million into the Livelihoods Fund for Family Farming, which will help stabilize the price and livelihoods of vanilla growers. These companies — including Danone, Firmenich, and Mars Inc. — have also signed contracts promising to buy vanilla directly from participating farmers, while the farmers agree to sell exclusively to these companies, at a 2-4% increase over the market price. The Livelihoods Fund also partnered with local NGO Fanamby to supply farmers with seeds and sustainable techniques, in addition to taking anti-theft measures that include advocating for farmers in the event of theft.

These connections promise to put more money into the hands of growers and offer much-needed protection in an age when armed guards are required to keep watch outside vanilla warehouses. So while Madagascar isn’t fit to support certain wild animals, one thing the country has supported for well over a century is vanilla.

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