Vanilla Curing

Once NEI’s farmers harvest their vanilla pods, they are ready to be brought back to our factory for curing. When our field officers collect the harvest, all details about the batch are recorded, including who the farmer is and where their farm is located. This allows NEI to trace the vanilla from “farm to plate.”

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When the pods arrive at the factory, they are still green and must be graded according to size and appearance. After grading, all of the pods are washed.  The next step is called blanching. This is when the pods are immersed in hot water, approximately 70 degrees Celsius. The temperature and time varies depending on the grade.

After the pods are blanched, they are wrapped in a clean blanket and stored in a wooden blanching box for 48 hours. During this stage, they begin to turn from green to brown.

When 48 hours have passed, it is time to begin the sun-drying stage. Each day, for a total of 28 days, the pods are spread out in the sun on a clean blanket for no more than two hours at a time. This is a labour intensive process.  If there is not enough sun, a tarp is placed over the pods to trap any existing heat. During this stage, the pods turn completely black and the characteristic vanilla aroma and flavour starts developing. Regular monitoring is done during this period to measure temperature and moisture content.fullsizeoutput_3bb7

Once sun-drying is complete, the pods are brought inside the factory to be sorted. They are organized into 1/2 kilogram bundles, wrapped in wax paper, and placed in a wooden box. The moisture content of the pods is measured every two weeks, and the humidity in the room is well controlled. During this stage, the pods complete the fermentation to finalise the  development of the full vanilla aroma.

Six months after the process begins, the pods are ready for sale or extraction.  Grades one, two and three pods are sold through distributors and retail outlets.

The grade four pods remain with NEI slightly longer. They are used to produce our Epicurious Hedgehog Vanilla Extract. To do this, pods are ground and then percolated at low temperature through distilled water and sugar cane ethanol in large tanks. This process takes approximately fourteen days, and the extract is then aged for several months for the full flavour to develop and the ethanol to mellow.

 

Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation at NEI

Because Kilimanjaro and its economy are largely dependent on the smallholder-based agriculture sector, they are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Approximately 90% of Tanzania’s population, as with the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, is dependent on rain-fed crops for their food security. Climate change negatively impacts such crop production through rainfall variability and temperature shocks, threatening the livelihoods of farmers (Arslan, Belotti & Lipper, 2017; Moore et al., 2011).

Natural Extracts Industries (NEI) is working hard to address this. Our work firstly addresses deforestation through agroforestry. Because vanilla requires shade to grow, forest conservation is promoted throughout our network of farmers. This is vital, as cutting down forests releases the carbon stored within them into the atmosphere, a
process accounting for 17% of carbon emissions globally (Gorte & Sheikh, 2010). An estimated 500 to 750 tonnes of carbon are stored in each hectare of forest, with Tanzania losing approximately 400,000 hectares every year (Khatun et al., 2015; Komba & Muchapondwa, 2015). These emissions have drastically changed the local climate.

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In order to help our farmers mitigate the effects of climate change on their vanilla and other crops, we have begun implementing several strategies, one of which is our rainwater harvesting project, funded by our partner organization MEDA. Farmers are selected for the program based on their level of water-stress, with priority given to our women farmers as well. They receive a rainwater harvesting tank and all required infrastructure installed at their farm free of charge. The size of the tank varies based on the number of vanilla vines each farmer grows.

fullsizeoutput_3b8bAfter receiving tanks from NEI, farmers are trained both on how to use the tanks and on how to most effectively utilize the harvested water for their irrigation purposes. Each vanilla vine requires approximately one litre of water a week, which can be achieved by implementing a bottle-drip irrigation system. NEI has already installed 74 tanks to 74 farmer beneficiaries, and aims to reach a total of 200 tanks by the end of 2018. In addition, NEI is also repairing water furrows.

 

 

Farmer Profile:fullsizeoutput_3b8c

Mary Ulomi lives in the village of Uswaa in Kilimanjaro with her husband and five children. Her livelihood is solely dependant on agriculture. Using her extra income generated from growing vanilla with NEI, Mary was able both to send her children to school and invest in other economic activities such as maize cultivation.

In the past, however, Mary has struggled with drought at her farm. She has even lost vanilla plants, which dried up due to the lack of water. In order to address this issue, NEI installed a rainwater harvest tank at Mary’s farm in August, and provided her with training on how to use her tank. She is now utilizing bottle-drip irrigation for her vanilla as well. Since the installation of the tank, her plants have remained in good health and she hopes to achieve increased yields in the coming season.

 

References

Arslan, A., Belotti, F., & Lipper, L. (2017). Smallholder productivity and weather shocks: Adoption and impact of widely promoted agricultural practices in Tanzania. Food Policy, 69, 68-81. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2017.03.005 (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306919217301872)

Gorte, R. W., & Sheikh, P. A. (2010). Deforestation and Climate Change. Congressional Research Service. (http://forestindustries.eu/sites/default/files/userfiles/1file/R41144.pdf)

Khatun, K., Gross-Camp, N., Corbera, E., Martin, A., Ball, S., & Massao, G. (2015). When Participatory Forest Management makes money: insights from Tanzania on governance, benefit sharing, and implications for REDD. Environment and Planning A, 47(10), 2097-2112. doi:10.1177/0308518×15595899 (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0308518X15595899)

Komba, C., & Muchapondwa, E. (2016). An analysis of factors affecting household willingness to participate in the REDD programme in Tanzania. Climate and Development, 1-14. doi:10.1080/17565529.2016.1145098 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/296475511_An_analysis_of_factors_affecting_household_willingness_to_participate_in_the_REDD_programme_in_Tanzania)

Moore, N., Alagarswamy, G., Pijanowski, B., Thornton, P., Lofgren, B., Olson, J., . . . Qi, J. (2011). East African food security as influenced by future climate change and land use change at local to regional scales. Climatic Change, 110(3-4), 823-844. doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0116-7 (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-011-0116-7)

 

It’s Pollination Season in Kilimanjaro!

This September, NEI held a special training for our Farmer Champions teaching them how to pollinate vanilla. This is such a vital part of the vanilla growing process that the training will be repeated three times. Our Farmer Champions will disseminate this knowledge throughout our entire network of more than 1600 farmers, ensuring that each farmer maximizes their harvest, and therefore their income!

Hand pollination of vanilla is a very delicate process. Each flower blooms only once and must be pollinated within a 6 to 8 hour window of doing so. To complete the pollination, our farmers use a toothpick to push up the rostellum, a very small flap in the centre of the flower. This allows pollen to be passed from the anther to the stigma.

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At our training, farmers receive hands-on instruction from our field officers on how to do this correctly. Each farmer can practice their pollination skills, as well as provide support and advice to one another. Pollination is so important because it enables the vine to grow long green fruits, commonly referred to as pods. These green pods are what is harvested and then cured to make black vanilla pods, which in turn are used to make the Epicurious Hedgehog Vanilla Extract you know and love!

The reason vanilla must be pollinated by hand is a rather interesting one. Vanilla, which originates from the tropical forests of Mexico, can only be pollinated in nature by a very specific type of bee known as the melipona bee.

When Mexico was colonized, Europeans fell in love with the flavour and took vanilla plants back with them to grow in their tropical African colonies. Since the melipona bee does not exist elsewhere in the world, the vanilla was not pollinated and, therefore, did not produce fruit.

Europeans tried unsuccessfully to introduce the melipona bee, and it wasn’t until 1836 that Belgian botanist Charles Morren discovered it was possible to pollinate vanilla by hand. Since then, vanilla has been enjoyed as a delicious flavour worldwide.  

 

References

Howell, M. (2016, May 05). Hand-pollination used to produce vanilla. Retrieved September 26, 2017, from http://newsok.com/article/5496227

Kull, T., Arditti, J., & Wong, S. M. (2009). Orchid biology: reviews and perspectives, X. New York: Springer.