Vanilla is one of the most expensive and widely exported spices in the world. However, the majority of the smallholder farmers who produce vanilla in Kenya experience food insecurity and do not earn sufficient income to adequately provide food for themselves and their families throughout the year.

vanilla farming in kenya
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Vanilla planifolia A is a very popular natural flavour widely used in various industries. In the food industry, vanilla is used as a flavouring agent in food and beverage products, while in the non-food industry, vanilla is widely used as an ingredient in fragrance and pharmaceutical industries. In addition, vanilla can also be used as an antimicrobial agent to prevent mold, as well as antioxidants in foods that contain lots of unsaturated components.

Vanilla Cultivars In Kenya

The two are Vanilla pantifolia also known as V. fragrans and Vanilla pompona schiede. A third edible species known as Vanilla tahitensis is believed to have originated by crossing V. planifolia and V. pompona stock in a laboratory in Manila, Phillipines in the 1700s.

Vanilla Propagation

Vanilla is propagated almost entirely by stem cutting. The cuttings are procured from another grower or from a government agricultural entity. Cuttings are made from highly productive and vigorous individuals that have never produced fruits. The cutting itself should not be a flowering shoot and should have at least 3 nodes with viable axillary buds for producing new shoots from which the plant will grow.

Cuttings should be free of damage or symptoms of pests/diseases so as to avoid future proliferation of disease. A best practice is to ensure that the cuttings are certified as virus-free. Cuttings are normally 6 to 8 nodes (80โ€“20 cm long, 1 cm in diameter) in length. Longer or thicker cuttings form new vegetative and reproductive shoots more rapidly (Ranadive 2005), but are more difficult to deal with during planting, and are more expensive.

Problems affecting vanilla farmers in Kenya

1. Farmers often lack the resources to upgrade or improve their production. Vanilla farmers tend to harvest their vanilla too early or cure it too quickly, because they are desperate for an income and are afraid of theft, which negatively influences the quality of the crop. Because of its poor quality and early harvesting, farmers often get less for their vanilla than they anticipated. Finally, theft is a huge problem in the vanilla industry in Madagascar. As a result of this, vanilla farmers have less vanilla to sell and thus obtain a lower income than expected.

2. Vanilla is one of the worldโ€™s most labour-intensive crops. For this reason, vanilla farming in Kenya is more suited to small-scale farming than large-scale production on plantations. Cultivation and production of vanilla in Kenya is a difficult and time-consuming process that requires a great deal of manual labour for pollination, harvesting and curing.

3. The vanilla market in the Kenyan region is informal. Most of the farmers trade vanilla at the local market or sell it at their homes or plots to brokers. Almost none has formal sales contracts with collectors. As a result, it is very difficult to trace vanilla back to a specific farmer.

4. Prices paid to the farmers vary greatly. However, a large proportion of the profits are unevenly distributed, often benefiting the more powerful players in the value chain. The market in Kenya is not well organized. There is little transparency and most deals are done on the local market.

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5. Farmers get paid much less than the other stakeholders due to the large number of intermediaries in the value chain. Farmers also feel exploited by collectors and other intermediaries, because they lack possibilities to commercialize their products themselves and to influence the price setting. Farmers lack information about prices at all levels and do not have negotiation power. Before the harvest, the exporter decides on the price and influences the decision of the vanilla platform.

6. Farmers do not trust or want to join associations/cooperatives. This is due to several reasons, including a lack of governance and/or vision; groups are often formed top-down (i.e. by exporters) and do not benefit the farmers; and intermediaries and exporters try to break down associations that benefit farmers or make them less powerful, leaving farmers despondent.

7. Vanilla farmers in Kenya do not have access to training, resources (including agricultural equipment, tools, financial means to pay for labour), information (especially concerning prices and the value chain) and skills/technical capacities required to produce quality vanilla. Furthermore, due to poor infrastructure and lack of access to roads, vanilla farmers are often isolated and cannot access the markets. Farmers have also reported that diseases affecting their plants are a problem.

8. There is no independent body that the farmers trust and which represents their rights and needs. Farmers are not involved in decision-making (especially regarding setting the harvest date, in order to attempt to control the quality) and do not know how the price is set. The industry is also not well regulated or controlled and there is a great amount of corruption at all levels. Bad practices (such as using vacuum packing), which negatively affect the quality of vanilla, are allowed in the industry.

Success Story Of A Young Vanilla Farmer In Kenya – Kwale County

By Malachi Motano

vanilla farmer in kwale kenya

Andrew Simiyu grows Vanilla, a crop most farmers in the Country have not considered farming. He started its farming in 2018 in a forty (40) acre piece of land in Mwapala, Kwale County. Though still waiting for the first harvest, he believes that he has ventured into a goldmine, since just a small bin of vanilla seeds is sold at Kshs.250 and with value addition can go up to Kshs. 1000. A single tree can earn a farmer over Kshs. 16000 per harvest.

When I began vanilla farming in 2018, the information about the crop was so hard to get. I was unable to find cuttings to plant locally and I had to source them from vanilla farmers in Uganda and Zanzibar. Unfortunately I even lost half of my initial vines. At least today I am able to nurture 500 vines and I am expecting to harvest the first batch of seeds at the end of the year,โ€ narrates Andrew
Simiyu.

He says Vanilla beans are the second most expensive product in the world, after saffron, due to its incredible flavor โ€œScientists have found more than two hundred and fifty natural flavors and aroma enhancers in vanilla.

They are also expensive because oflong duration they take to mature. โ€œItโ€™s hard to grow. Vanilla take many years (2-4) to mature, with their flowers blooming only once in a year and have to be pollinated that very day for the plant to produce beans. Vanilla isnโ€™t a native plant in most areas where it is grown so there are no bugs or birds capable of pollinating its flowers.

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The flowers therefore have to be pollinated by hand since they have small flap of plant tissues known as rostellum, separating their male and female organs hence do not self-pollinate.

The pods need several months to cure after harvesting, making the whole process to be time-consumingโ€ says Simiyu.

Its orchids produce a dark brown seed pod that produces vanilla extract, one of the main flavors for yogurts, ice cream, chocolate, cookies, tea, cakes, and perfumes. Vanilla pods need several months to cure after harvesting. โ€œPost-harvest curing requires scorching sun. It takes vanilla six to eight months to cure. It also requires ample and adequate rainfall and extremely warm temperatures for optimum growth.

Beach land and low altitude lake regions provide perfect environment for vanilla plantations to flourish,โ€ he explains. Vanilla growing conditions include hot and humid weather. It also does well on sandy soil with clay and river silts combined.

Due to high demands, Vanilla beans are prone to theft. Farmers sometimes pick vanilla pods while still green for fear of theft, unfortunately this result to lower quality hence fetching lower prices.

The beans start drying immediately after the harvest and turns dark brown, oily and flexible then develop a powerful and enticing fragrance that is also known to chase away insects and pests.

The cost of a single Vanilla cutting is Kshs. 1o00 or Kshs 800 while bought in bulk. The stems of the first set is normally cut off after about 2ยฝ years when the vanilla is about to flower. This gives the farmer another vine, and also spurs flowering.

Planting can be done first in nursery or directly at the farm within three weeks or one month. The young vines are vulnerable hence need to be planted in a controlled area for easy monitoring. The area also needs to be well manured and shaded. Transplanting is done once when the vine starts showing signs of new growth.

Just like passion fruit, Vanilla vines need support and so should be planted next to posts or trees. Its vines mature faster when they creep up on trees since this enable them to feed from the trees barks. Trees also provide a natural canopy that shades the vines. The tree cover should. However, not be too dense, as vanilla doesnโ€™t do well.

When using posts like in the case of intensive farming, it is advisable to create about 1 ยฝ meter spacing in either direction to give enough space for each vine to freely grow and allow easy access when carrying out fieldwork.

The vines should be left to creep up on a tree or post only to a reachable height, to enable manually induced flowering. The vine can be looped into the mulch if it is getting too tall, leaving the tip up, and it will regenerate and creep up once again.

With his 500 vines in flowering period, Andrew wakes up at 5 am before itโ€™s too hot and while the flowers are still fresh to manually pollinate them by detaching the film that separates the male and female gametes using a toothpick

Vanilla flowers last a day, they open just before sunrise and wilt before nightfall. If they are not pollinated during this short window, they fall from the plant, which is a seed worth at least Sh250 that will not be harvested until the next flowering season.

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โ€œAnother benefit for vanilla is that, unlike other high value crops, it demands little upkeep. Every three months I clear any dense grass growing around the vines, add manure and mulchingโ€ says Andrew.

According to agronomists, farmers in the highlands, can to grow vanilla in greenhouse because of the specifications required.

Vanilla is harvested only twice a year with a vanilla tree bearing up to 80 beans. Since the crop takes too long to mature despite the country possessing the right conditions for its cultivation ready market locally and export, most farmers shy away from growing vanilla.

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