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Exploring new vanilla growing regions in Madagascar

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Expanding Madagascar’s vanilla production into new growing regions beyond the traditional Sava area could bring many benefits. From ice cream to chocolate to beverages, vanilla is everywhere. Its rich, sweet notes feature in berry flavours, caramel flavours, whiskey flavours and many more. Around 80% of this precious spice comes from Madagascar and, currently, the island’s north-eastern region of Sava is the main producer. With its lush green valleys and areas with rugged highlands, Sava has been at the heart of vanilla cultivation for over a century. This has enabled the region’s economy to grow, and local farmers to establish a high level of expertise.

In recent years, however, the vanilla market has changed significantly. Poor harvests due to adverse weather, combined with a surge in consumer demand for natural ingredients, have sent prices soaring. These developments have led industrious farmers in Madagascar to explore new avenues and growing regions for vanilla production throughout the country.

Vanilla farming is a complex and time-consuming process: from planting to harvest takes a minimum of three years, and the orchid flowers have to be pollinated by hand. Diversified sourcing has the potential to bring many benefits, both to the island and to manufacturers.

Beyond Sava

After Sava, the second most productive zone is Mananara, which is also in the north-east and accounts for around 33% of Madagascar’s vanilla crop. Surrounded by rolling hills and emerald-green rivers, vanilla farming began to develop here about 10 years ago. Growing practices are sound, and though sea transport is complicated and somewhat risky, there is much less crop speculation in comparison to other areas.

Another emerging growing region is the small but easily accessible area to the north of Toamasina, running from Fenerivo Est to Soanierana Ivongo. Better known for its clove plantations, it is relatively new to vanilla farming, so knowledge of growing and curing practices is still developing. The rainy winter season presents a challenge, as vanilla requires sun drying, but this region is considered to have great future potential. It currently produces around 1% of Madagascar’s vanilla.

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In the north-western region of Ambanja, three decades of vanilla farming have led to an advanced level of knowledge and excellent growing practices. Around 1% of Madagascar’s vanilla is grown in this area, which enjoys a low risk of hurricanes. What makes Ambanja particularly interesting is its early harvest – one month earlier than usual. This serves as a vital indicator of the crop quality and market that follows in Sava and other areas.

Early harvesting brings disadvantages too though: in recent years, the picking of green beans well before they have had a chance to fully develop has caused serious quality concerns. Early harvesting in Ambanja is likely to trigger early picking in other regions, a practice that threatens the premium quality of Madagascar beans.

The south-east began to embrace vanilla growing around two years ago, at least partly due to the market conditions. Most plantations are found in a largely unspoilt region that runs along the coast, starting in Manakara and continuing north for about 350km. This area boasts primary rainforest but is difficult to access and, like Toamasina, can be wet in winter. Soil quality is quite poor as well.

Growing in the south-east requires official government authorization, and the local authorities have been helping to support and protect this young supply chain. At present, the area is mainly a green bean market (as opposed to cured) and delivers under 1% of Madagascar’s total crop. Vanilla planting has increased recently though, so within 2-3 years production is expected to reach more than 50 tonnes.

 “Over the past decade, there has been a lot of change and volatility in the vanilla market​,” explains Eric, Agronomist at Givaudan, based in Madagascar. “As the market has changed and evolved, we have seen more and more interest in growing vanilla in areas well outside Sava. It will take some time, but this holds great promise for Madagascar’s vanilla crop, as it could increase the total volume, bring some stability to the market, and ensure continued high quality​.”

Building a sustainable future

Givaudan is one of the largest buyers of vanilla beans in the world. The company has a strong presence in Madagascar, having worked hand in hand with local farmers for decades. It has gained an in-depth knowledge of the country’s unique soil, climate and cultivation methods.

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Sustainability and responsible sourcing are key priorities for Givaudan. The company invests in community projects and education in the vanilla growing communities, with the aim of protecting and enhancing the livelihoods of local people and establishing a steady supply of highest quality vanilla.

Although it is too early to know for sure, spreading out into other regions may also mean that different ‘appellations’ of vanilla could emerge, much like types of wine. These new qualities could then provide inspiration and storytelling possibilities for flavourists, centred around the special link between ingredients and their place of origin.

Whatever the future holds, Givaudan hopes that expanding beyond Sava will help to stabilise the market and bring many other benefits to Madagascar and its people. An exciting journey of discovery lies ahead.

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