Adding value: Breaking down barriers to premium vanilla

A social enterprise is linking smallholder farmers in Tanzania to the international vanilla market to develop the organic farming sector, and realise sustainable livelihoods. The farmers receive vine cutting subsidies and training in agricultural practises to enhance their capacity and production.

Value-added vanilla products from Tanzania are being exported worldwide © Nestlé

In Tanzania’s Arusha, Kilimanjaro and Morogoro regions, 1,500 smallholder farmers are benefitting from increased access to regional and international premium vanilla markets. As part of a supply chain programme funded by the social enterprise Natural Extracts Industry (NEI), since 2012 smallholders have received subsidies for vanilla vine cuttings and training in good agricultural practices, including the use of natural bio-pesticides and composting, to enhance their production capacity. Once processed and packaged under the brand name ‘The Epicurious Hedgehog’, the value-added vanilla products are exported to dairies, restaurants and bakeries, worldwide.  

Agriculture employs about 80% of the workforce in Tanzania and accounts for roughly half of the national income. Yet, most Tanzanian farmers are smallholders relying on coffee, banana and seasonal vegetable crops, and struggle to earn a sustainable income. Vanilla, as one of the most labour-intensive crops in the world, is not considered a viable income source by many farmers. The flower must be pollinated by hand and the beans blanched, sweated, dried and cured, after which a plant or vine yields on average 1.8 kg of pods per year, for a typical price per kilo (for average grade vanilla) of €2.20. However, training by NEI in vanilla intercropping using organic farming techniques, has enabled 1,500 farmers and women’s groups in the region to overcome the barriers to the premium vanilla trade. According to Juan Guardado, NEI managing director, the farmers involved in the project have seen an increase in their earnings from an average of €330, to around €590 per year. 

To maintain the quality of the raw materials used and avoid post-harvest losses, a processing plant funded by NEI has been developed in Moshi, Kilimanjaro, with the capacity to process 10,000 l of vanilla extract. The vanilla pods are processed within 3 days of harvesting, before the onset of deterioration. Safarani Seushi, senior supply chain manager at NEI explains, “The technology required for value added processing in Eastern Africa has been cost-prohibitive for the small farmer. Setting up facilities at this scale was daunting, even for a company like NEI that is processing hundreds of kilos of vanilla. There are also regulatory challenges. As the only company who processes natural flavour extracts, we are defining new standards for Eastern Africa.” 

Through a Vanilla Outgrowers programme, NEI-registered farmers are also learning about eco-friendly cultivation techniques and production methodologies that help minimise the impact on the environment. Penina Mungure, from Ndatu village near Arusha, is part of the programme and planted vanilla vines in 2005, but only learned how to pollinate the vanilla flowers through the NEI farmer support network. She now works with new members as a mentor and has bought an egg incubator with her additional income, which allows her to produce chickens for her community.  

In future, NEI hopes to expand its reach. “In each of the next 3 years we hope to add 800 farmers to our network which will increase the impact of NEI across Tanzania. NEI is a model for social enterprises across Africa and we've been recognised by many organisations (like Unreasonable.is and Nestlé) for the work we have done,” explains Seushi. To date, NEI has purchased over €75,340 worth of produce from smallholder farmers. The company’s medium-term goal is to reach 5,000-6,000 farmers, with the overarching aim to expand up to 20,000 farmers over the next decade.

Sophie Reeve

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.