Kampala/Johannesburg — Uganda, the world’s fourth-biggest vanilla exporter, is boosting output to benefit from prices for the flavouring that’s more valuable than silver, and has forced growers to hire armed guards to deter thieves.
The landlocked East African country will produce about 100 tonnes this year, with potential to double that in future, according to Aust & Hachmann (Canada), the world’s oldest vanilla company. While that’s far below the 1,600 tonnes top-grower Madagascar can produce, extra Ugandan output would diversify global supplies and see farmers of some of the world’s potentially best beans reap as much as $600,000 per tonne, company director David van der Walde said.
"Vanilla is an important crop and the government is promoting its quality and boosting security in growing areas," said Opolot Okasai, director of crop resources at Uganda’s agriculture ministry. The Uganda Export Promotion Board says annual vanilla shipments ranged from 0.65 to 75.4 tonnes in the half-decade to 2016, the last year for which data is available.
Extra agricultural revenue would be a boon for Uganda, already Africa’s top coffee exporter, as it struggles to reach its 2020 target of middle-income status, which needs per capita income of between $1,045 and $12,736. A delay in starting oil production in the country’s west is affecting the government’s economic targets, the planning authority said in February. Agriculture makes up about a quarter of Uganda’s $24.1bn economy.
An extra source for the beans that flavour everything from lattes to ice creams would also ease buyers’ near-reliance on a single location. Last year’s cyclone in Madagascar, which contributes as much as 80% of the world’s supply, curbed production there and added to the price spike. Papua New Guinea is the second-biggest grower at 200 to 250 tonnes, while Indonesia produces about 150 tonnes, according to Aust & Hachmann’s November report.
"When all the conditions are right, Ugandan vanilla can be outstanding," said Van der Walde, whose company has historically been one of the biggest buyers of Ugandan vanilla. Prices spiked in the early 2000s, causing buyers to use more synthetic flavours. The market collapsed as a result, with vanilla trading at $30/kg to $80/kg in 2004-14, leading farmers to curb production.
Prices have soared since 2015, largely on new demand from major food companies reacting to a consumer preference for natural ingredients. In Uganda, some farmers responded by picking the beans too early, hurting yields and quality, according to Van der Walde. The export board’s website notes that while Uganda has a reputation for quality vanilla, output has been low.
"One of the great sadnesses for me is they haven’t taken advantage of the recent high prices," Van der Walde said. "That’s the jackpot and Uganda was totally unable to take advantage of it. It’s coming now, but it’s late."
Bows and arrows
Ugandan vanilla is mainly grown in the central region and the western Kasese and Bundibugyo districts bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Okasai said it’s gaining prominence as a "major export-revenue earner" and the government will destroy prematurely harvested vanilla and advise farmers on better crop-handling. A police unit will also punish practices that adulterate the quality of the produce, depending on local legislation.
Security’s the main worry for Peter Lutalo, a farmer in Nkokonjeru, about 48km east of the capital, Kampala. He says other growers have hired guards equipped with guns, bows and arrows, and machetes to protect their vanilla, saying, "If you don’t watch over your farm at night, thieves will exploit the laxity and harvest your crop."