Mananara Vanilla Madagascar
The Aztecs were the first to use vanilla, and still today it is cultivated in the tropical forests of Central America. But some of the world’s best vanilla is grown in Madagascar, far from its homeland. Introduced to the island by French colonists in the mid-1800s, vanilla flourished in the rainforests along the island’s northeast coast. Now Madagascar is one of the biggest vanilla-producing countries.
In the Mananara Nord Biosphere Reserve, created by UNESCO and ANGAP, the Presidium growers still grow vanilla in the shade of the rainforest trees, a few meters above sea level.
The orchid Vanilla planifolia has long, thin, flexible climbing stems, with few branches. Mananara vanilla grows up living supports, namely the native forest trees. Once the plants reach human height, they are folded over (bouclage) to encourage the development of flowers along the descending part of the stem. In vanilla’s native Mexico, stingless Melipona bees pollinate the flowers, but in Madagascar, as in other countries, the flowers are pollinated by hand. The plant flowers between September and January, and on every dry morning the producers delicately pollinate the buds using a stick. After pollination, the flowers develop into long pale-green pods, odorless and full of seeds, similar to fresh green beans.
The black, soft, vanilla-scented pods with which we are more familiar are obtained after a lengthy production process. As soon as they are harvested, the green pods are immersed for a few minutes in hot water, then left to sit for two days in a wooden box, lined with a woolen blanket called the drape à vanille. The pods are then dried in the sun: Every day for a whole month, the pods are laid out on the drape à vanille over cane or wood racks and exposed to the sun for 2 to 3 hours, then wrapped in the drape and left for another couple of hours in the sun before being brought back into the house. The pods give off moisture and endemic enzymes free vanilla’s main aromatic component, vanillin.
Lastly, the vanilla pods are arranged on wood or cane shelves in special small storerooms, where they are regularly checked and sorted by the producers.
After the drying, the producers work the individual pods by hand, rubbing them with their fingers to stretch them out.
The Presidium was created in collaboration with the NGO Intercoopération, the agency DEC (Developement Environmental Consultant) and ANGAP (Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protégées Malgaches). Around 900 producers have organized themselves into a cooperative and are working to improve cultivation and processing techniques and to promote the vanilla on the national and international market. The villages’ remote position and the single unpaved road linking them to the rest of the world have severely hindered direct sales. Even though vanilla is one of the world’s most expensive spices, the growers usually receive only a tiny share of its market value and most of the profits go to intermediaries. By creating a cooperative and facilitating direct sales by the producers, the Presidium wants to guarantee them a better profit margin, which can then be reinvested into the local community.
The project also has an important environmental aspect: Madagascar has an extraordinary wealth of biodiversity and the vanilla producers live in one of the country’s three biosphere reserves. Working in collaboration with the Mananara park authorities, the Presidium producers are committed to respecting the forest, avoiding “slash and burn” or the indiscriminate cutting of trees for timber.
Mananara vanilla was certified Bio by Ecocert in 2005, according to CEE and US NOP standards, and certified by Biosuisse in 2006. In 2007, it received fair-trade certification (Fair Trade, Max Haveelar) from Flo Cert. Following these certifications, the cooperative was able to fund infrastructural micro-projects that helped connect the area’s villages with each other.
36 villages in the Mananara Nord Biosphere Reserve
Presidium supported by
City of Riga as part of the 4Cities4Dev project, co-funded by the European Union
918 producers joined in the cooperative KOMAM (Koperativa Mpamboly Ambanivolo Mananara –
cooperative of growers from Mananara villages)
Willy Clovis Mora
Director of the Mananara Biosphere Reserve
Tel. +261331269230 - +261320490241