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Sustainable cultivation

Vanilla: a way of life

For over a century, thousands of smallholder farmers on the island of Madagascar have grown and sold the world's largest, and best, bourbon vanilla crop.

The heart of global vanilla production

Madagascar may be a small island but it looms large in the world of vanilla, producing four-fifths of all the world’s vanilla harvest every year.

The heart of global vanilla production
The best of both worlds
Working in the heart of global vanilla production, we combine technology with local wisdom across our supply chain.

We’ve been working in the SAVA region since 2006, partnering with almost 7,000 farmers across 90 villages. Today, annual harvests of around 2,000 tons of beans are still produced by skilled smallholders, pollinating the vanilla orchids by hand. As the only company in the industry with a local presence in the heart of global vanilla production, we’ve been privileged to gain deep insights into vanilla cultivation over the past decade, learning from those who see vanilla as a major part of life.

By centering our vanilla production in Madagascar, we can achieve an excellent, fresh and optimized quality for our customers and consumers. We’ve invested a lot here, but it’s worth it – for the company, and for the people here.

Alain Bourdon, Managing Director, Symrise Madagascar

Our supply chain in Madagascar stretches from pollination to finished flavor extract, combining local expertise with technology in the most sustainable way possible. This includes our recently opened extraction facility in Madagascar, which today employs around 70 people and runs on sustainable fuel provided by locals, offering another much needed source of income to our local partners.

Sustainable quality
Working directly with almost 7,000 farmers, and benefitting around 40,000 people in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, is a huge responsibility.

Creating the best possible product demands the best possible vanilla crop: working closely and sustainably with local farmers is the only way to achieve this. We offer our partners a higher income, greater independence, health benefits and improved education, as well as teaching them through a variety of programs how to protect the local environment and secure their future.

We achieve this by working with certification organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, but we’ve also developed a tightly integrated system that relies on proximity to the farmers and their product. Laurence Briand, who’s responsible for our sustainability activities, is a well-known and well-liked local figure who helped develop our approach. "We want the farmers to see us as both a reliable partner and a demanding customer,” says Laurence. “Proximity to the farmers helps us achieve our goals, such as being able to trace the origin of the vanilla accurately while simultaneously maintaining excellent quality.”

If we want to be successful, we need to improve the farmer’s living conditions – and fight together with them for the preservation of the environment.

Laurence Briand

A labor of love

From origins in Central America where it was first cultivated by the Totanac people, today the vanilla orchid is grown in tropical climates around the world. Pollinated by hand everywhere except in Mexico, and with flowers that may only be open for one day, cultivation is highly labor-intensive.

Global vanilla production

From Mexico to India, skilled and dedicated farmers produce an annual global vanilla harvest of between 2,500 to 3,500 tons, but by far the largest crop comes from Madagascar.

Global vanilla production

Transforming today’s vanilla business

Across Madagascar, around 70,000 farmers plant, pollinate, care for and harvest vanilla orchid plants - most of them in the SAVA region.

SAVA: the fertile heart of vanilla cultivation

The north eastern SAVA region of Madagascar is where almost all of the island’s vanilla crop is cultivated – it’s also home to our operations here in Madagascar.

SAVA: the fertile heart of vanilla cultivation
600

600 blossoms need to be pollinated by hand to produce 6 kg of green beans

6 kg

Around 6kg of green vanilla beans are needed to produce 1kg of black beans

1 kg

From 1kg of black beans, we produce 10 liters of concentrated vanilla extract

The traditional supply chain

For decades, green beans harvested by famers have been sold at markets to intermediate traders, who then sell the vanilla on to processors and refiners. These businesses then supply international flavor companies, making tracing the supply chain of the vanilla beans almost impossible.

While the traditional system has survived for many years, it doesn’t provide the traceability, consistency of supply, and security for the farmers that a truly sustainable model can.

Vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world: in Madagascar, vanilla is nearly all grown by independent smallholder farmers, who live in small, dispersed villages and hand-pollinate their crop. Farmers bring their harvested green beans to local markets, where they’re bought by intermediaries to be sold on to processors and refiners.

This model has many links, often making it impossible to trace the origin of any given batch of beans. This can result in an inconsistent supply and financial insecurity for farmers who have little control over the bean price. Uncertainty and the need for cash can put pressure on farmers to harvest their beans early, before they’ve fully matured, impacting vanilla quality as well as the farmers for who vanilla is often the only source of income.

The traditional sourcing model

Thanks to its many links, tracing the origin of a particular batch of vanilla beans through the traditional sourcing model is almost impossible.

The traditional sourcing model
A unique ingredient – sourced uniquely

We became the first company to have an integrated, sustainable, vanilla supply chain when we began transforming the Malagasy vanilla business in 2006.

The Symrise sourcing model

In order to trace the source of our vanilla, which is the only means of creating a truly sustainable supply chain, we simplified our sourcing model by going directly to the people who know everything about the vanilla crop – the farmers.

The Symrise sourcing model

Transformational change begins with an idea. Our idea was to create a better way of sourcing vanilla – for us and our customers, for the farmers, and for the environment – by ensuring the vanilla we buy is sustainable. That doesn’t mean we’re replacing the smallholder farming system that has produced high quality vanilla for decades. Instead, we’re working closely with farmers and buying their beans direct, aiming to improve the cultivation process and enhance farmers' livelihoods.

First, we had to persuade others that this idea was the right one for them. Farmers who were entirely reliant on the income provided by their vanilla beans and who had known the traditional supply chain all their lives, needed to believe in us and in our idea. Already insecure and financially vulnerable, they couldn’t afford to take a risk with their livelihoods. Trust was essential.

So we began the process of communication and collaboration that’s been the foundation of all our work in Madagascar. We worked to understand the current supply chain, the farmers and their needs and concerns. We engaged with intermediaries who bought beans in local markets, and employed them as supervisors and inspectors. We used technology to map where vanilla was grown and worked with farmers to assess the best ways to improve cultivation.

Year-round involvement in sustainable vanilla

Our direct relationship with farmers and their co-operatives provides the product traceability which is essential to achieving a sustainable integrated supply chain

Year-round involvement in sustainable vanilla
A fair deal
Being on the ground is the only way to ensure that the system works for everyone involved.

Since we began our work in Madagascar in 2006, we’ve been able to show an increasing number of farmers the benefits of being part of an integrated, sustainable supply chain – and they’ve chosen to work with us in their thousands.

We think this is partly because our work is about more than securing a sustainable supply chain. We’re working closely with farmers and local communities to improve cultivation practices. One of the key elements of this is training farmers in things like crop diversification and soil management. By helping farmers maintain their plots year round and grow a wider range of crops, we can help them improve their financial security – a major issue when you rely on just one crop for your entire income.

Our model benefits many Malagasy and that means both the people who have found a job at Symrise Madagascar and the small–scale farmers and their communities. All of these people play a vital role in the vanilla value chain – they are the basis of the local economy and they guarantee sustainable quality.

Clemens Tenge, Global Competence Director, Vanilla

Improving vanilla cultivation

Every day, across the SAVA region, our team works with farmers to grow premium bourbon vanilla sustainably.

7,000

almost 7,000 small-scale farmers produce vanilla for Symrise

98

We work with farmers in around 98 villages across Madagascar

40,000

Around 40,000 people benefit from this cooperation

By bike, by foot, by boat, our team visits some of the remotest villages in Madagascar to train, guide and audit our farmers.
No farm is too far.

Knowing where our vanilla comes from is one of the most important things for our business. But implementing the traceability of products is much more complicated than it sounds. “Unlike in many developed countries, we can’t collect and analyze data with completely automated systems,” explains Jean Victor Rhaharijaona, who heads up the sustainability program alongside Laurence Briand. “The power supply here is unreliable, and many of the farmers we work with live in remote areas and are not able to read or write.”

Our inspectors visit every farmer we work with, recording important data, offering training and improvement plans and ensuring farmers not only comply with standards, but also understand why they’re important for them.

To overcome these challenges, we needed a new approach. “We employ internal controllers, many of who were vanilla farmers, that are trusted and respected by their communities,” explains Jean. “It’s with the help of these controllers, who actually go out and visit farmers, that we’re able to record important data on farms, villages, local terrain and more more. They also audit the compliance of each farm with SAN (Sustainable Agriculture Network) criteria as well as proposing annual improvement plans and supporting farmers with regular training. In this way, we’re able to track our supply chain and ensure that we’re really helping the farmers that we work with.”

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By bike, by foot, by boat, our team visits some of the remotest villages in Madagascar to train, guide and audit our farmers. No farm too far.

Knowing where our vanilla comes from is one of the most important things for our business. But implementing the traceability of products is much more complicated than it sounds. “Unlike in many developed countries, we can’t collect and analyze data with completely automated systems,” explains Jean Victor Rhaharijaona, who heads up the sustainability program alongside Laurence Briand. “The power supply here is unreliable, and many of the farmers we work with live in remote areas and are not able to read or write.”

To overcome these challenges, we needed a new approach. “We employ internal controllers, many of who were vanilla farmers, that are trusted and respected by their communities,” explains Jean. “It’s with the help of these controllers, who actually go out and visit farmers, that we’re able to record important data on farms, villages, local terrain and more more. They also audit the compliance of each farm with SAN (Sustainable Agriculture Network) criteria as well as proposing annual improvement plans and supporting farmers with regular training. In this way, we’re able to track our supply chain and ensure that we’re really helping the farmers that we work with.”

Our inspectors visit every farmer we work with, recording important data, offering training and improvement plans and ensuring farmers not only comply with standards, but also understand why they’re important for them.

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Sustainable accreditation

Farmers can maximize their income by gaining sustainable accreditation for their vanilla crop – which also meets our customers’ brand needs.

Vanilla cultivation
From initial plot preparation to the annual cultivation cycle, vanilla farming demands dedication and attention to detail.

Location is everything when farming vanilla. Too much sunlight can ruin everything, soil moisture needs to be perfect and you need the right amount of tree coverage to provide shade for the delicate vanilla plants. But finding a plot is just the start. Farmers then need to thin plots out, plant ‘tutor trees’ in the dry season between which the evergreen vanilla vines can grow, and when the rain comes, plant the vanilla-seedlings.

Once planted, there is no time to rest. Plots need clearing up to three times a year, and new vanilla tendrils, which appear around two weeks after planting, need placing around tutor trees.

Experienced farmers can pollinate between 1,000 and 2,000 blossoms a morning. Nine months later, the first vanilla beans are ready to be harvested.

After three to four years, a tangled structure develops that looks like chaos to the uninitiated, but the farmers know exactly what to do. Some of the tendrils are cut, allowing blossoms to form on those that aren’t. It’s at this critical point that the farmers pollinate the blossoms by hand. As blossoms are only open over a period of three months, and can only be pollinated between 6am and 10am, timing is everything. Many farmers will sleep on their plots to make sure they don’t miss any opportunity to pollinate their precious crop.

A unique support network

The farmers are the vital first link in our supply chain – but to ensure a sustainable harvest of premium vanilla year after year, we also rely on our unique team of advisors and inspectors.

The Farmer

Rakoto has dedicated many years to cultivating his remote vanilla farm, which is more than two hours walk from his home through the steeply rising forest. At first glance, Rakoto's small vanilla plot looks no different to the forest around it. But his vanilla plants have wrapped their metre-long tendrils and dark green leaves around the surrounding trees, where he tends, pollinates, and harvests them in season, all by hand. Rakoto's plot is typical: tens of thousands of small-scale farmers cultivate the ‘Queen of Spices’ in small pockets of land across Madagascar. We work directly with over 7,000 farmers like Rakoto.

The Advisor
Working directly with farmers to improve harvests

Benahina works with farmers to improve their vanilla harvest using sustainable farming methods. Benahina knows vanilla, the farmers who grow it and his country like the back of his hand. A former vanilla buyer, the father of six is one of our team of advisors, each of whom works directly with farmers across numerous villages, often travelling for several hours to reach the remote farms where they work. His focus is assessing damage to the land he loves, and working with farmers to teach them sustainable farming practices.

By showing farmers how to grow a more diverse range of crops, we can grow on steep slopes, restore nutrients to the soil and prevent erosion.

Benahina Rakotonandrasa Evariste

Working directly with farmers every day can mean that Benahina spends hours commuting to and from farms, travelling by bike, or in rainy season, on foot. But for Benahina, the effort is worth it as the work he does with farmers on sustainable farming can directly benefit the environment he loves.

The Inspector
Making improvements to benefit everyone

Simon Vanombelona, elected by the village, meticulously records the location and plants of his village’s farms as part of our commitment to sustainable farming. Simon is an 'internal controller' - a vital part of our effort to improve both the livelihoods of farmers and the traceability and sustainability of their vanilla.

Working with inspectors like Simon, we have mapped the location of the farmers' plots, as well as the course of rivers, areas affected by slash-and-burn practices, rice fields and foot paths. These maps describe the flora and fauna in each area, the volumes harvested, the condition of the soil and the plants, the vanilla harvest of the past years and the progress of other agricultural products.

I find it very important to leave a healthy environment behind for my children. We need to watch out that we do not destroy our soil.

Simon Vanombelona

From bean to extract

Turning green vanilla beans into the highly aromatic black beans that we know and love is as skilled and complex as making wine. And like wine-making, it relies on the wonder of fermentation.

Fermentation, expertly controlled

There's no room for improvisation with a process as intricate as fermentation, which demands continuous expert control.

Natural vanilla has one of the most complex flavors in the world. Fermentation releases this natural flavor, vanillin, by using enzymes to split open the glucovanillin present in the beans.

Fermenting vanilla beans is an intricate, detailed process that takes months. Everything has to be just right – from purchasing the right beans, through more than 50 process and quality-control stages, to choosing the right packaging. We’ve mastered this business using traditional methods, a great deal of expertise and decades of experience.

Fermentation requires painstaking attention to detail. It begins at the moment the green bean is purchased, when villagers bring their crop for sale on a day specified by the Malagasy government in order to ensure maximum ripeness. Every bean is inspected for quality, which is no easy feat at hectic markets where thousands of beans are being sold. The beans are then sorted according to size and color, heated in water, packed into crates wrapped in cotton blankets to ‘sweat’, before they’re finally dried under the Malagasy sun.

By the time the beans are ready to be dried, they’ve been handled about 50 times. The sense of touch plays a decisive role in checking their condition and deciding when the vanilla is fully ripened. More than anything, we need to feel the moisture and elasticity with our fingers.

Clement Carbol, Head of the Fermentation Plant

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Natural vanilla has one of the most complex flavors in the world. Fermentation releases this natural flavor, vanillin, by using enzymes to split open the glucovanillin present in the beans.

Fermenting vanilla beans is an intricate, detailed process that takes months. Everything has to be just right – from purchasing the right beans, through more than 50 process and quality-control stages, to choosing the right packaging. We’ve mastered this business using traditional methods, a great deal of expertise and decades of experience.

Fermentation requires painstaking attention to detail. It begins at the moment the green bean is purchased, when villagers bring their crop for sale on a day specified by the Malagasy government in order to ensure maximum ripeness. Every bean is inspected for quality, which is no easy feat at hectic markets where thousands of beans are being sold. The beans are then sorted according to size and color, heated in water, packed into crates wrapped in cotton blankets to ‘sweat’, before they’re finally dried under the Malagasy sun.

By the time the beans are ready to be dried, they’ve been handled about 50 times. The sense of touch plays a decisive role in checking their condition and deciding when the vanilla is fully ripened. More than anything, we need to feel the moisture and elasticity with our fingers.

Clement Carbol, Head of the Fermentation Plant

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Fermentation, stage by stage

It’s the magic of fermentation that transforms the green vanilla beans into the aromatic black beans used in products across the world. But magic takes time: the whole fermentation process can last months.

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Flavor locked inside

Natural vanilla's complex flavor comes from the aromatic components of the bean, which make up just 2% of the bean's mass. Vanillin is the foremost of these aromatic elements, but the characteristic flavor only occurs thanks to hundreds of other components.

Decoding vanilla’s aromatic profile

Vanilla is one of the most complex spices in the world, made up of 400 – 500 individual aromatic components, all of which have an impact on the beans’ final taste and aroma.

Decoding vanilla’s aromatic profile
Knowledge, experience and expertise

Between them the team at our fermentation plant share many centuries of experience. From Manajara, our weatherman, to Maro, one of our highly experienced inspectors, they ensure our vanilla is of the highest quality year after year.

The Weatherman
Protecting the crop from its arch-nemesis: rain

Mananjara is a short range meteorologist, vital to ensuring the fermenting vanilla beans aren’t ruined by the rain as they dry in the sun. To ensure the best possible product, all the stages in the fermentation process have to be spot on. This means, among other things, that the vanilla needs to ripen in the sun for just the right amount of time, without getting wet. This makes Mananjara one of the key people in the whole fermentation process.

When Mananjara says that rain is coming, you had better believe it is going to rain. We have complete trust in him. He is extremely important to us.

Clement Cabrol, Head of the Fermentation Plant

When Mananjara signals from his post on a stool observing the sky, the entire fermentation plant shifts gear. Men run out through the rolling doors to lift the wooden frames holding the dark black vanilla beans ripening in the sun. They carry the frames back into the whitewashed building and five minutes later, more often than not, the rain begins to pour down in streams. The courtyard in front of the building is soon covered in water - and the crop, which has to dry and ripen outside but cannot get wet, is saved.

The Sorter

After many years working in the drying team, Soazery is now one of the sorters who meticulously examine and sort the vanilla beans. Seated at a long table among dozens of colleagues, Soazery Sina Olivette deftly sorts vanilla beans into bundles. “I pay attention to the thickness, whether they are split open at the ends or have any color variations,” she explains. “There is no margin for error in this work if you are going to achieve the highest quality.”

The Inspector
Selecting the best of the best

Maro is one of the team of quality control inspectors who draw on their years of experience to analyse the quality of the beans, and to assess how they should be treated to achieve perfection.

Maro fans out a bundle of vanilla and holds it directly under his nose. He sniffs, bending some of the beans sideways, then sniffs again. “Just as it should be,” he says, and places the bundle into a sack. Like a wine connoisseur, Maro has a whole language to describe the quality of beans – and his sharp eye doesn’t miss a thing. He and his equally experienced colleagues make the final, decisive checks on the vanilla beans at our fermentation facilities – the last of many stages in our quality control process.

Maro’s face is covered in small black dots from the small vanilla seeds that stick to the beans – evidence of the work he loves.