Silas, the Vanilla Expert!

Across from me in my office sits a humble gentleman who types quietly on his computer… for 2 minutes until he is on his way out of the office again, off to visit another farmer.

Silas Noah is one of NEI’s co-founders and even though he rarely mentions it, it made perfect sense to me once I found out! He knows everything there is to know about farming and growing vanilla, not to mention he knows each one of the Farmer Champions personally.

Silas and Juan Guardado established NEI in 2011, combining their expertise in rural development (Silas) and business development (Juan). Learn more about the history of NEI here.

Silas has personally worked with the vanilla farmers since the first day and still does. I had the chance to join him on a field visit recently and got to learn so much from him (even about clove trees) and observe him mentoring another farmer and Farmer Champion.

Last week NEI’s extension team held a meeting with all the Farmer Champions in the area, it was a great time to learn about all the challenges the farmers face. Silas was totally in his element guiding the farmers!

NEI is very lucky to have someone as positive, outgoing and smart as Silas! Thank you Silas!

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Farming Vanilla

So we told you all about the vanilla plant last week but do you know how vanilla fits into farming? It is the reason we at Natural Extracts Industries are so excited to be partnering with Tanzanian farmers to introduce it to their farms!

The smallholder farmers we work with grow lots of other things on their farms like bananas, coffee or sugar cane. Vanilla is planted between and around these existing plants because it doesn’t need a lot of space and it enjoys the shade! In the picture you can see how the vanilla vine is planted below a banana plant. This is called intercropping and it is great for the farmer and the environment in many ways!

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Intercropping allows the farmer to produce a greater yield from their farms and earn extra income, this also makes it a smart environmental practice. Vanilla needs the shade of larger plants to grow, this means planting it discourages deforestation. That’s good news because many of the farmers we work with live on the edges of national parks. The environmental buffer zones around the parks are preserved because of the vanilla and Tanzania’s wildlife is better off!

So now you can see why we love farming vanilla! It is great for everyone involved and the environment! Let us know if you have any more questions about farming vanilla!

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Growing Vanilla

Part of working with Tanzanian smallholder farmers is really understanding the core environmental aspect of what they are doing every day. In the case of vanilla, the whole story often isn’t told! And, by all means, it is actually incredibly interesting!

Originally, vanilla is native to Mexico, where one certain species of bees specializes in it’s pollination. This kind of bee, however, does not exist in Africa (or anywhere else other than Mexico for that matter). Since no other family of bees, nor butterfly, moth, fly, or hummingbird have been willing to pollinate the vanilla plant – it has been left up to human beings. Therefore, this hand pollination, flower, by flow, is  a very tedious and labour-intensive crop.

Vanilla plants take 2.5 years to start flowering. Once the flower has blossomed, they are hand-pollinated with a tooth pick (from male to female, which are differentiated by one extra petal). Then, the flower shrivels up, the orchid falls and a green vanilla bean grows (in groups like bananas). The plant is a perennial and will continue to flower for approximately 13 years, but it is extremely easy to regenerate them because a whole plant will grow by planting just one vine in the ground, from an older plant.

The Jatrofa tree also plays a huge role in the growth of vanilla. The small tree is planted about 3 months before the vanilla as a support system, as the vanilla vine clings to it and they grow high together as friends, drinking off each other (just like us). The Jatrofa (called ‘Croton’ in English) also produces nuts which are used as a sustainable way to produce biofuel. There are even croton nut pickers who make a living collecting them.

All in all, a very interesting plant!

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