From Green Beans to Black Gold - Communal Vanilla Farming in Uganda
Vanilla plants wind through the gardens of small-scale farmers at the crater lakes at Fort Portal in Uganda. Their green fruits are not as easy to recognize as the black beans that are offered in supermarkets. After processing, vanilla is sold as the second most expensive spice in the world. For the green beans, however, farmers receive poor prices, and on some farms, growers need to use child labor to make a living. Green Leaf Vanilla is a community-based organization that groups farmers around organic vanilla production. By supporting its members through training and empowering them as a collective, the organization offers a unique social alternative to regular vanilla products. Green Leaf Vanilla has also started its own processing. This shifts the ability to capture the value of vanilla towards the farmers.
Stephen inspects the vanilla beans of one of the group members.
Green Leaf Vanilla, a community-based organization
Stephen Akugizibwe founded Green Leaf Vanilla in 2018 with the vision to reach economic prosperity among his community. Stephen studied tourism with a distinct focus on local plant varieties in Uganda. He has worked as a guide for 15 years, and by organizing tours to vanilla orchids, he learned more about the opportunities of vanilla and the need to unite farmers. After collecting knowledge from visitors during his guided tours, he got a hold of books about vanilla production. Ever since, he has perfected the method of growing vanilla, and has continued to expand his expertise alongside his understanding of the local ecological system.
The organization now has 100 members in total. Stephen ensures high transparency through many contact points for the farmers to maintain mutual trust in the organization. Farmer cooperatives are often in a vulnerable position in Ugandan society, and farmers often feel disconnected from the administrative body. Green Leaf Vanilla is different because they hold a shared vision. The group functions democratically, and each farmer is involved in the decision-making processes. "If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to reach far, go with many," explains Stephen when reflecting on the benefits of working together. The group has a constitution that each member has to understand and sign in order to join. For instance, this constitution explicitly highlights the use of only organic material. It also highlights the strive for the development of the community around them. The farmers support each other, and just recently, the group paid collectively for the school fees of one of their members' children.
Some of the group members in front of their vanilla orchids.
Social, scalable, and agroecological
Farmers around the crater lakes often operate on a small-scale basis and have little economic stability. Vanilla beans provide them with higher revenue, as this cash crop profoundly impacts their income. Growing the yield is highly labor-intensive and a complicated process. It takes three years after planting the vanilla before farmers can harvest the first beans, and the slightest mistake can affect the quality of the vanilla. Green Leaf Vanilla empowers farmers by helping them integrate vanilla orchids on their farms and supporting them during the cultivation process to achieve the optimal output. Furthermore, the farmers intercrop the vanilla orchids with jatropha plants which serve as natural fixtures. The vanilla is grown together with indigenous trees and banana plants, which outgrow the orchids in size, then give shade to the orchids. This intercropping system increases biodiversity and the farmers' income sources. Besides this, farmers use the manure from the farm animals as organic fertilizer. In this way, the organization is introducing agroecological methods into every farmer's practice.
Vanilla orchids have to be fertilized by hand - one step of the complicated growing process.
Skipping brokers and capturing value
Vanilla beans in Uganda are sold at a government-regulated fixed price. Stephen explains that, typically, “middlemen make all the money”. Farmers systematically miss out on potential income because brokers buy unprocessed green vanilla beans, and the value increases steeply with processing. Additionally, the brokers prove to be unreliable in fulfilling payments.
Green Leaf Vanilla processes its own vanilla beans. They blanch the beans and cure them for four months, which leads to fermentation, turning the beans black. This ensures that the farmers can capture increased value. Farmers can decide whether they want to sell their vanilla as a green bean or process it with Green Leaf Vanilla. This enables them to outwait low prices of vanilla, as the price is highly volatile.
The final product - processed, black vanilla beans.
Creating a strong market position
Despite their current capacity and ambitious vision, Green Leaf Vanilla struggles to become a strong market actor and compete with large-scale commercial farms. At the moment, the organization only sells to local businesses and tourists passing through the area. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought them further obstacles, among others, restrictions in movements and a lack of tourism. Green Leaf Vanilla has therefore missed out on essential customers and slowed down their application process for necessary certificates. At the moment, they do not hold any official certificates for their organic production because of the high cost of the certification process. It is unrealistic for the farmers to make such investments without finding continuous buyers for their export-ready vanilla. Until now, farmers still sell most of their green beans to brokers, despite having enough capacity to process their yield themselves through Green Leaf Vanilla. Their need for money to run their farms is too high to take risks without the guarantee of making money with the processed beans.
An alternative to the food system of today
Green Leaf Vanilla is a prime example of social alternatives to food sourcing using middlemen. When farmers hold their own means of production and make money from their crops, they can build thriving local economies and become resilient to exploitation. The farmer group has high ambitions for the future and is currently applying for government export licenses. But only with a change in how western companies source their products and a shift in consumer behavior can Stephen and Green Leaf Vanilla succeed. In Denmark, this shift is on its way. More businesses make it their mission to offer socially responsibly sourced ingredients to consumers. One of them is Social Vanilla working to change the vanilla industry for the better and make it more socially and environmentally sustainable. The CEO of Social Vanilla, Amie N’Dong, explains: “Our mission is to ensure an equal distribution of wealth in the vanilla value chain. And in addition, empower the small-scale farmers to take back control of their products and its value chain. The Green Leaf Vanilla association is a perfect example of empowered farmers, and we are more than happy to support and help them link to the international market.”