Comoros hit by vanilla competitors
mise à jour 18/12/2006
Comoros hit by vanilla competitors
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC News, Grande Comore
Eighty-year-old farmer Yusuf Mzee Ali gently squeezes the leaves of a
vanilla flower between his thumb and index finger.
This is a one-time process which - in nine months' time - will lead to the
growth of a 10 cm-long green vanilla pod or bean.
The Comoran farmer from the island of Grande Comore, one of three islands
that make up this Indian Ocean archipelago, works in deep tropical
undergrowth in the shadow of the massive volcano which dominates the
Vanilla has sustained him and many other families across Grande Comore for
generations, but now plummeting prices in the world vanilla market has
left him a poor man.
Just three years ago, a kilo of processed vanilla beans was selling for up
to $600 (£319). Now the price is around $20-30.
"We have to hope that the price increases," Yusuf says. "But all we can do
is wait. In the meantime, I'll grow a few bananas and manioc to feed the
family. This year we're not going to have any money to spend."
Many vanilla aficionados will tell you that the world's best
bourbon-style vanilla is to be found on the Comoros islands. The fertile
volcanic soil and humid climate make it an ideal location to grow the crop.
AGK is the country's biggest exporter of vanilla. Its warehouse hangs
heavy with the intoxicating, sweet aroma - tickling taste buds with the
flavour of ice cream, custard, cookies and other delicious foodstuffs.
It is here that the green beans turn into the cured, brown ones found on
the shelves of gourmet delicatessens across the world.
It takes five to six months of intensive work to process the bean,
according to AGK's jovial vanilla-loving owner, Amine Kalfane.
"We have teams of workers who every day sort through the vanilla," he says.
"It's the sweat on their palms which adds to the special flavour of
vanilla. It is a labour of love.
"We say that vanilla is like a second wife. If you don't look after her,
then you will have a lot of problems with her."
For now the Comoran love affair with vanilla has turned from sweet to
bitter. The historically high prices of 2003/04 have paradoxically ruined
the market for the Comoros.
Other developing countries such as Uganda, Indonesia and India cultivated
thousands of new plants in the hope of harvesting huge profits.
Meanwhile, international buyers of vanilla were scared off by the high
prices and started using cheaper synthetic vanilla products instead of the
Both developments have driven down the price.
"We are faced with a simple situation: an oversupply of vanilla on the
world market," Mr Kalfane says.
"The world demand is about 1,700 tonnes a year, but already Madagascar,
the world leader, will produce between 1,800-2,000 tonnes this year.
Uganda will produce around 200 tonnes and the Comoros around 60 to 80."
Madagascan vanilla is substantially cheaper than Comoran vanilla largely
because - unlike the Comoran franc - the country's currency, the ariary,
is not pegged to the euro.
The price per kilo of vanilla for the October harvest is expected to stay
around $20-30 - barely a break-even price for producers in the Comoros, a
situation of which the government is all too aware.
"Vanilla is our main export crop. Probably 90% of the people on Grande
Comore are involved one way or another in the vanilla market," said Ahmed
Abdallah from the Ministry of Agriculture.
"If the price decreases it affects everybody."
The one hope for Comoran vanilla is its quality. Buyers of the more
expensive gourmet vanilla beans, as opposed to industrial vanilla which is
used to manufacture vanilla essence, are still, to some extent, loyal to
the quality of Comoran bourbon vanilla.
Farmers like Yusuf Mzee Ali hope that loyalty could help to bring back the
sweet smell of success.
Vanilla is Grande Comore's main export crop
Curing vanilla beans is a labour-intensive process