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Vanilla: PNG’s little known world-class industry

Vanilla-flowerAMY TORI
| Prague Post | Edited extract

PRAGUE –Founded by Dan Edmiston in August 2017, the Native Vanilla company brings top-quality vanilla products to market that are organically farmed and sustainably sourced from rural growers in Papua New Guinea.

Edmiston found himself back in PNG after a long absence from his childhood home when he identified a need to help micro-farmers get a fair price for their vanilla beans as well as the need to produce a high-quality dry-cured vanilla bean for global markets.

Native Vanilla has grown into a successful brand and is traded on five continents with a growing footprint. Its coverage includes North America, Asia, Australia, Africa, and Europe.

Its mission is to promote sustainable farming rather than subsistence farming.

PNG produces some of the finest dry-cured vanilla beans in the world.

This sought-after spice is used to flavour food, beverages and perfumes. It’s primarily obtained from pods of the Mexican species, the flat-leaved Vanilla (V planifolia).

The word vanilla is derived from ‘vainilla’, which is the diminutive of the Spanish word ‘vaina’ (meaning a sheath or pod). Roughly translated, vaina means ‘little pod.’

There are two commercial types of vanilla; Bourbon (Vanilla planifolia) and Tahitian (Vanilla tahitensis). Both species are grown in Papua New Guinea.

Bourbon vanilla is a higher yielding, contains more vanillin and has broader market appeal.

Tahitian Vanilla needs a shorter period to induce flowering and is suited to a wider range of environmental conditions.

In PNG, vanilla is grown successfully from sea level to 600 meters altitude, although it can be found at over 1,400 meters.

Hot and humid temperatures are conducive for optimal growth, which is enhanced by the rainfall being distributed throughout the year. Two dry months are needed to slow vegetative growth and induce flowering.

Vanilla is a small niche market. World consumption varies from between 1,800 and 3,000 tonnes. The market is characterised by extreme price fluctuations, made up of high price peaks and prolonged troughs.

Vanilla is quite a recent addition to PNG’s agricultural mix. Where once only a few hundred micro-farmers were growing vanilla, there are now more than 50,000 people making their living from this highly sought after but unpredictable spice.

It was only in 1993 that the industry took off when Allan Bird of Bangui Bio Products planted vanilla on a large scale near Maprik in East Sepik Province.

Bird encouraged local farmers in the surrounding villages to also plant vanilla and set up the critical mass needed to grow the smallholder-based business.

A massive incentive for vanilla farmers is the strength of the US dollar against the kina. Another positive for rural farmers is that vanilla does not require large areas of land to produce a good income.

The orchid that produces the vanilla pod is now planted extensively in all the lowland and island provinces.

Papua New Guinea is the third-largest producer of vanilla products in the world (after Madagascar and Indonesia), representing 10-15% of the world’s output.

A slow curing process develops the distinctive flavour and fragrance of PNG’s high-quality vanilla. It’s very labor-intensive and can take between three to six months for the bean to reach perfect maturity.

Farmers have benefited from extensive training in recent years to ensure they produce vanilla products of the finest quality.

Vanilla is bought by buyers over three months, starting in February.

The vanilla market was under-regulated for a long time, which left micro farmers vulnerable to unscrupulous buyers. There is still much to do to regulate the market as well as improve production to enhance the best quality vanilla.

The most crucial concern for micro farmers is to perfect the dry-curing process so that the vanilla beans are not over-dried or under-dried, so they either lose their flavor or go mouldy.

Vanilla is the perfect spice product to produce in a country like PNG with its poor infrastructure and isolated villages. The spice is non-perishable when cured, which means it can be brought in from remote locations with poor or non-existent road access.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

This report on the ABC website tells how a vanilla buyer was attacked by raskols and gave up buying PNG vanilla. He then collaborated with an engineer in Australia to set up a system of growing vanilla.

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