Rising global prices of vanilla: Opportunity for Zim

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Tapuwa Justice Mashangwa
CENTURIES from now we will still need agricultural produce. Food will always be one of mankind’s basic needs and so agriculture is a “forever sector”. The global agricultural produce demand varies from one country to the other and so do the prices.

There are international products such as corn, wheat, tomatoes, onions, cabbage that are wanted regardless of location and other products such as vanilla that have high demand in specific regions.

Vanilla is a flavouring extracted from orchids of the genus vanilla , primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla. Vanilla is one of the most recommended products for flavouring products such as tobacco, liqueurs, food, beverage, confectionaries.

Vanilla is also a flavourant for smoothies and blended fruit, citrus, chocolate, savoury and dairy products.

Some use it as a sweetness enhancer, bitterness mask agent and reducing burning and biting sensations; aromatherapy; pain reduction in women; calming, reducing the startle reflex; fragrance. It is also used in perfuming candles, air fresheners, incense, household, baby and personal care products; medicinal and so on.

The vanilla genus comprises about 100 species. However, only three varieties of commercial vanilla are grown for their fruit: vanilla planifolia, vanilla tahitensis and vanilla pompona. Vanilla planifolia has the most commercial value of the vanilla varieties.

Vanilla is a shade-loving plant; it prefers 50 to 60 percent shade and good to strong indirect light. They may also benefit from dappled light. While shade is necessary, it should not be too overbearing. An eastern exposure is the optimal direction.

The traditional growing method for cultivating vanilla is to grow it on a low-branching shrub or tree called the “tutor”. The tutor supports the vine and provides the desired shade.

Left to grow on their own, the vines will climb directly up the support to which they are attached.

However, to make it more accessible to pollinate and harvest the beans, the plant needs to be trained to a height of not more than 1 200 to 1 350 millimetres with a maximum height of no more than 1 500 millimetres. As the vines can grow up to 15 metres they are looped. This technique also helps to encourage flowering.

The cultivation, harvesting and curing of vanilla is a very labour-intensive process. The vines must be trained on their supports by hand and each flower must be hand pollinated. The vanilla beans are harvested by hand progressively as they ripen.

Even most of the packaging is still done by hand. It is for this rigorous labour requirement of vanilla that is it expensive.

For one with intentions to venture into vanilla production restrictive factors or influences are; moulds (penicillium and aspergillus) potentially destroying the vanilla.

The lack of vineyard and processing facility hygiene; the risk of mite infestation; possible inadequate quarantine procedures; inadequate information on global market trends, production levels and prices also matter.

The largest producer of vanilla currently is Indonesia, which had an output of more than 3 200 tonnes of vanilla, barely edging out Madagascar and far above the 463 tonnes from Mexico.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world. In first position is saffron. This is due to its intensively-involved methods of cultivation, which also makes the vanilla industry one of the world’s most volatile markets.

Other factors that influence it’s price is the introduction of synthetic flavourings with sensory qualities resembling natural vanilla, at lower prices and the effect of petroleum drilling and refining that can alter and damage ecosystems where vanilla is produced leaving vanilla plantations vulnerable to plagues and illnesses.

According to an article, “the leading countries in the vanilla production in the world, due to the fact that vanilla production is highly labour-intensive in nature, countries with the lowest labour costs are favoured.

Countries such as China (with 335 tonnes last year) may struggle to gain much ground in the market because workers there are most likely going to demand higher incomes as the Chinese economy continues to grow.

Ironically, countries with low growth rates, like Uganda, will have a long–term labour cost advantage within the vanilla market, and that’s one of the reasons they have been able to attain increasingly better positions in the vanilla market.

Comoros remains a prospect to become listed among the top producers of vanilla in the world because, just like Madagascar, their major labour force component is found within the agricultural sector. It is estimated that at least 70 percent of the working population active in Comoros’s rural areas is involved in vanilla production. The highest annual tonnage ever achieved by Zimbabwe for vanilla production was in 1991 when we produced 50 tonnes.

Currently on average we produce about 11 tonnes annually. With the increase in diversification of agricultural produce, vanilla is not a bad market to venture into.

The writer is Eng Tapuwa Justice Mashangwa, Group CEO Emerald International Consortium and CEO Emerald Agribusiness Consultancy based in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on +263 771 641 714 and email: tj.mashangwa@eic.co.zw

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