Madagascan Cyclone Wipes Out Significant Volumes of Vanilla Crops

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15 Mar 2017 --- A devastating cyclone has wiped out significant volumes of vanilla crops on the tropical East African island of Madagascar - and what’s left is under armed guard as producers try to protect the valuable commodity which will now likely soar in price. 

Madagascar, the world’s leading producer of vanilla growing nearly half the world's crop, was recently hit by cyclone Enawo which left a trail a devastation in its wake, including 78 deaths, 250 people injured and around 250,000 people displaced from their homes. 

It is believed to be the most powerful storm to hit Madagascar in 13 years with winds estimated at 145mph coupled with heavy rainfall leading to floodings in some parts. The widespread destruction includes losses to vanilla fields and plants, which is being estimated at approximately 30%. There also could be further loses once fields have been examined more closely. 

President of the national vanilla exporters' group, Mamy Razakarivony, told Reuters, that he fears local growers will now try to sell immature vanilla pods which have been damaged by the storm, resulting in poor quality entering the market. 

Although the harvest is not expected until July, vanilla prices are already high and are forecast to go up even further. 

"The destruction of uprooted fields and plants (means) losses are estimated at 30 percent," tells Reuters. 

"High prices and poor quality vanilla: this announces a catastrophic season. People are already starting to pick up the immature vanilla that has been pulled out due to the cyclone."

However, Alessandra Ognibene-Lerouvillois at vanilla supplier Prova stresses to FoodIngredientsFirst that it is too early to speculate on the true impact that the cyclone has had on vanilla crops, as it may unnecessarily flare up the market. “While we cannot deny that the impact of such cyclone is significant humanly and materially speaking, it is too early to make official statements on how this climatic event has affected the vanilla crops,” she notes. “All the players from the vanilla industry are currently mobilized to conduct thorough assessments of the situation and this thanks to local teams on the ground.”

“Compared with the previous cyclones, Hudah and Gafilo, it seems that vanilla plots have been less impacted, even though cities like Antalaha have suffered extensive damages. We have to be wary of presenting the situation worse than it is, in order to avoid unjustified speculation on prices, which would go against the sustainability of the Malagasy vanilla. Therefore it is equally important to support local communities through this hardship, as it is important not to flare up the market with making assumptions,” Ognibene-Lerouvillois stresses.

Jay Klosterman, Givaudan’s Vanilla Programme Manager, said: “We are obviously very concerned about the devastation caused by cyclone Enawo and our thoughts go out to those killed and made homeless as a result."

“Givaudan is the world’s largest buyer of traceable and certified vanilla, employing people directly in Madagascar. We also work with 3,000 vanilla farmers across the island, supporting them via training, educational, and health programmes. We will of course continue this support, helping to rebuild farmers’ lives and crops after this tragic event.”

Vanilla is a popular flavoring worldwide and Madagascar supplies a range of international markets, amongst its most common uses are as an ingredients in coffee and ice cream.  

Because it’s such a labor intensive crop, vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron - but following the severe damage to this season’s crop, prices will escalate. Reports say current prices for black non-split Madagascar vanilla is US$487.50 per kg, compared with black non-split vanilla from India at US$420 per kg and US$210 per kg from Papua New Guinea. 

The storm reached the island in the SAVA region, where Barry Callebaut and Prova launched their joint project to introduce cocoa farming to Madagascar’s main vanilla-producing area. Both companies are donating CHF 50,000 (US$49,568) for immediate support of the local farmers.

The companies can’t fully assess the damage on the ground at the moment because some of the affected areas are still not accessible and a lot communication infrastructure is out. 

Last autumn, Barry Callebaut, the world's leading producer of high-quality chocolate and cocoa, and Prova, one of the world's premier manufacturers of vanilla extracts and flavors, joined forces to diversify and stabilize revenues of vanilla farmers through the introduction of cocoa farming. The joint project’s activities are focusing on the SAVA region, the main vanilla growing in the northern part of Madagascar - heavily hit by the Enawo cyclon.

“Currently, we do not know the full extent of the damages and how this will affect the current project of Prova and Barry Callebaut. But it is important to us that we can help the local farmers in a pragmatic and fast way,” says Oliver von Hagen, sustainability manager global sourcing at Barry Callebaut.

As young cocoa trees were being planted shortly before the storm, the coming days will reveal how Enawo affected the joint project.

by Gaynor Selby

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