Madagascar is the world’s leading grower of vanilla, one of the world’s most precious flavourings. Only saffron commands a higher price, and the reason is that vanilla is very labour intensive to produce commercially. It grows slowly and has to be hand-pollinated, and it only thrives in very specific conditions. It’s a highly specialist form of farming.
You might think that vanilla farming would be a good living, considering that a kilo of vanilla pods can be worth hundreds of dollars – at one point last year, vanilla was more expensive than silver. As usual, it doesn’t work out that way in practice. Networks of middle-men had been able to capture the market, and others controlled the processing of green pods, meaning that the farmers themselves often received a fraction of the stated price.
Climate change adds to an already volatile business, especially from the risk of more extreme weather. It was cyclone damage that pushed up vanilla prices last year, and that brings consequences of a different kind. There was a spate of vanilla robberies, often leaving farmers with nothing to show for all their work. Farmers are tempted to pick their vanilla pods early to avoid the risk, resulting in lower quality vanilla, which pushes prices back down again.
With so much of the world vanilla harvest dependent on Madagascar, there are waves of boom and bust that make it hard to invest and hard to make a dependable living. The vanilla growing Sava region of Madagascar remains impoverished, despite its world class exports.
As you might expect, Wall’s ice cream is a big buyer of vanilla. What happens in Madagascar affects their supply chain and their business, so they have been working to support growers more directly, helping to stabilise incomes and improve infrastructure. In partnership with Save the Children and the flavourings company Symrise, they have also provided health insurance, access to finance, financial education and training. Young people get extra education and youth committees organise events and football clubs. 40,000 people have benefited in 76 different villages.
Building on this work, the Vanilla for Change campaign launches today in London. If you buy a Wall’s ice cream over the summer, certain brands will be carrying a ‘track your impact’ code. The code can be entered online, allowing consumers to see the impact their purchase has made in Madagascar and in Britain through the social enterprise Me to We.
“While we know that ice-creams reliably offer people small moments of happiness,” Wall’s say, “we have been searching for ways in which we can make a more lasting, sustainable impact through our business and value chain.” Lots of big companies are saying things like this at the moment, of course. But Wall’s are part of Unilever, a multinational that has a reputation for taking sustainability seriously, including integrating the Sustainable Development Goals into their business model.
As someone with a healthy interest in Madagascar, and in ice cream, I will be looking out for the Vanilla for Change programme as the weather warms up.
- Feature image shows Marinette, a Save the Children educator and vanilla farmer. Image credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey / Save the Children.