We all know that distinctive sweet flavor – from puddings, ice cream and cookies. But how does vanilla grow? And why are crimes committed for the spice? We visit Madagascar, where the coveted substance is produced.
When the sky turns silver-gray and the heavens open seconds later, our taxi driver finally goes on strike. “This far and no further,” he says, pointing to the potholes as he yanks the key out of the ignition of his rusty Renault 4. Here in northeastern Madagascar, 25 kilometers north of the town of Sambava, our ride is over. So we continue the journey on foot, along a muddy track, past coconut palms, banana trees and bright-green rice fields. Suddenly the wind turns, a smell wafts by. First it’s just a hint, a sweet, slightly tangy note, then it grows stronger, almost obtrusive, until there can be no doubt: It’s vanilla. The smell leads us to a ramshackle wooden building on a hillside.
Two dozen men and women are sitting there, sorting vanilla beans by color, length and ripeness. Standing in the middle of the room, Hermann Totozokiny is waving a bundle of vanilla beans. Dressed in T-shirt and shorts, he has the aura of a canny businessman. “Welcome to my kingdom,” he says with a mischievous grin and invites us on a tour of his warehouse. He’s 32 and the third generation of his family to run the company. So valuable are the goods stored here that strangers are not normally allowed inside the vanilla warehouse. But Totozokiny isn’t worried we might rob him. “I pay people for my security,” he says simply.
There’s vanilla in Chanel’s classic perfumes, too, not just in yoghurt and cola
We’re visiting on an August afternoon, and Totozokiny has been inspecting the harvest since early morning, smelling the beans to assess how fully their aroma has developed. He has hundreds of tiny black vanilla seeds under his nose and also beneath his fingernails. “They ought to be drying in the sun,” he says, “but because we’ve had so much rain in the past few days, it’s taking longer.” He estimates that the beans will be ready for export in two to three months. “And then,” says Totozokiny, his voice now full of pride, “we will ship them all around the world.”
Not many spices on earth can match the popularity of vanilla, which is often referred to as the “queen of spices.” Sagas and myths surround the bean that is the fruit of the orchid vanilla planifolia: In Mexico, it was originally reserved for the upper classes; Casanova reputedly laced his mulled wine with it; and it is allegedly one of the ingredients in the recipe for Coca-Cola that remains a closely guarded secret to this day. Vanilla belongs equally to Chanel’s perfumes and Grandma’s puddings.
The most coveted variety is bourbon vanilla. It’s the one with the finest, most balanced flavor. It takes its name from the island of La Réunion, a former French colony the French originally called Île Bourbon. Today, bourbon vanilla grows mainly on Madagascar, which produces almost 80 percent of the world crop. In Sava, the region around Sambava, conditions are perfect for growing the spice, which requires a plentiful supply of both rain and sunshine. The country exports up to 2000 tons of vanilla each year and at the same time provides roughly 80 000 farmers with a reliable income.
Demand determines the price – and that is why vanilla ranks second among the world’s most expensive spices. But it’s hard to establish just how expensive since the market reassesses the price every year. In 2015, a kilogram cost between 60 and 80 U.S. dollars, but food companies are currently paying over 200 U.S. dollars per kilo. The kilo price demanded by the bandits who invade the Sava region each year is not known. The extreme fluctuations in the vanilla price are the result of greed, speculation and varying global availability. The only factor that’s constantly high is demand. It’s so high, in fact, that there is insufficient natural vanilla to satisfy demand; so high that producers sometimes bring in their crop too soon in order to store the beans while they wait for prices to rise. The trouble with unripe beans, however, is that they have not developed their full aroma. And so in March 2016, in a bid to preserve the good reputation of Madagascan vanilla, the government prohibited the export of unripe beans – and burned hundreds of kilos of green vanilla. This explains the exorbitant price of vanilla this year, too.
Robert Zara, 34, a vanilla grower, has heard nothing of all this. He doesn’t know why the middlemen who come to his village every year offer him more money one time and less another. He also doesn’t know exactly what companies like Coca-Cola and top European chefs do with the beans. Like most Madagascans, he himself does not use the product he grows. Vanilla is traditionally not an ingredient in Madagascan cooking. All of the beans are exported. “I heard that foreigners use it in food” he says uncertainly. But one thing he does know very well is that this year went very well for him.
Zara speaks slowly and softly. He’s a small man and appears a little lost even in his tiny hut in Antohompahitra. The village is just a few kilometers away from Totozokiny’s warehouse, but getting there involves first a car ride, then a ferry crossing and finally riding a motorcycle over muddy tracks. There’s little more to Zara’s hut than a bed and a mosquito net and yet for the past few weeks, he has felt like a wealthy man – because he now has electricity. Solar panels on the roof of his wooden hut charge a car battery he bought from his earnings. “I own a radio, at last,” he says, smiling shyly,” now I can always listen to the news!” This year, he has also been able to afford the timber needed to extend his cabin as well as three cows.
Vanilla is native to Mexico, and it was from there that the Spanish took it home to Europe. The French, who ruled their island colony until 1960, transferred their vanilla plantations from there to Madagascar. But while indigenous bees and colibris pollinate the plant in Mexico, there are no animals suitable for doing the job in Madagascar, and that’s what makes vanilla an incredibly labor-intensive crop. The growers have to pollinate each and every blossom by hand. Over a period of two months, they attempt to spot every blossom, and that means checking the plants daily because each bud flowers only on a single day each year. Even after harvesting, the vanilla is not yet ready for consumption. The green beans first have to be fermented. The process turns the green beans brown and intensifies their flavor. For this, the vanilla pods are alternately treated with hot water and steam and kept in airtight containers. The beans are then dried over a period of several weeks and only then are they ready for export.
Thanks to vanilla, crime is on the increase, but so is our quality of life
But it’s not just the work that makes vanilla a tricky product. As harvest time approaches, thieves arrive on the scene and move in under cover of darkness, armed with makeshift guns. That’s why Zara sleeps in his field during the harvest, with a machete and a spear at his side, ready to protect his precious plants. “It’s always a tough time,” says Zara, “because if someone steals my vanilla, I lose my entire year’s income.” He had to chase off a thief only recently – and not for the first time. “Now the crop is in and I can at last sleep in my own bed again,” he says.
“It’s the same chaos all over again each year,” sighs Marino Rajaonina, 35. Since 2002, he’s been reporting on vanilla-related crime for Radio Vanille in Sambava; you could call him the region’s roving reporter. He’s on the move every day throughout the summer, buzzing over rough tracks from village to village on his moped and recording theft, murder and manslaughter with his camera. “An increase in the price of vanilla means an increase in crime in the region,” says Rajaonina, “and it’s years since the price was as high as it is now.” He cannot say exactly how many cases he has written about in the past few weeks, but there were seven deaths: four plantation owners and three bandits.
There are no official figures on vanilla crime, nor does anyone know exactly where the stolen vanilla ends up. Although many farmers and exporters pay protection money to the local police, the thieves often pay more. And even honest policemen are rarely keen to pursue thieves, as their own weapons are too outdated and unreliable and the pay too low for such dangerous work. “Now and again the police catch a couple of bandits,” says Rajaonina, “but it’s hard to say whether that’s really more of a PR exercise. Mostly, they only get their hands on individuals even though organized gangs are behind many crimes.”
To protect themselves, practically all vanilla villages erect road blocks at their entrance between June and August, which are guarded by men from the village. They ask strangers their business, search their baggage for stolen beans, and sometimes they manage to scare off bandits. But even a voluntary guard system can have its negative side because concern sometimes turns into paranoia and people may take justice into their own hands. There was an incident a few years back, for example, when vanilla buyers were traveling in a car near Antalaha and villagers stopped them, mistaking them for thieves – and lynched two of the car’s three occupants.
So what is vanilla for Madagascar – curse or blessing? Rajaonina considers for a moment before answering. “Both,” he says, “we not only have an increase in crime, but also in our quality of life here.” Madagascar is, in fact, one of the poorest countries in the world. Of its roughly 24 million inhabitants, 92 percent have less than two U.S. dollars a day on which to live. Illiteracy is high, and in rural areas, less than five percent of households have electricity. It was like that for a long time in Antohompahitra, too, Zara’s village, but now lights shine in the windows of the small wooden huts there. Many families send their children to secondary schools because they can afford to take motorcycle taxis and boats into town – and sometimes, the vanilla growers also treat themselves to a little luxury, rather a rare thing in Madagascar.
We’re back in Totozokiny’s warehouse and it’s late afternoon now. We meet a friendly vanilla farmer making his way to the field. He beams when we ask him what he bought from his vanilla earnings this year. “A flatscreen television!” he says. Totozokiny grins; he overheard our conversation. “Not everyone can cope with vanilla,” he says. For many, receiving an entire year’s income on a single day is all too tempting and “they go off to town and drink it away with their pals or spend it on prostitutes.” He’s seen many farmers come and go in the past few years. “Vanilla is like a moody lover,” he says, “when you know how to handle it, it makes you the happiest man on earth. But if you don’t, it will finish you.”