Vanilla in Papua New Guinea

Vanilla is used as a natural food and drink flavouring and as an ingredient in perfume. There are two commercial types of vanilla – Bourbon (Vanilla planifolia) and Tahitian (V. tahitensis). Both are grown in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Bourbon vanilla is higher yielding, contains more vanillin and has a wider market. Tahitian vanilla needs a shorter period to induce flowering and is thus suited to a wider range of environmental conditions.

Vanilla Planifolia Flower

Vanilla is successfully grown from sea level to 600 m altitude, although it bears at over 1400 m in PNG. The daily temperature range for its optimal growth is 21–32 °C, with an average around 27 °C. Annual rainfall should be in the range 1700–2500 mm and evenly distributed throughout the year. However, two drier months are required to slow vegetative growth and induce flowering. Areas that do not have this dry season are not suitable for vanilla. The crop requires well-drained soils that are preferably deep and fertile and rich in organic matter. The crop’s environmental requirements significantly limit the locations in which vanilla will flower. In PNG, extensive planting has been undertaken in locations where there is no regular dry season. These plantings are not likely to be successful.

Vanilla occupies a very small world niche market. Over the last 20 years, world consumption has varied between 1800 and 3000 tonnes, with production varying between 1200 and 4000 tonnes. This small market is characterised by extreme price fluctuations, made up of high price peaks and prolonged troughs of relatively low prices. Prices have been particularly sensitive to events in Madagascar, which produces 60–75% of world vanilla. Recent vanilla price fluctuations have been extreme. A severe cyclone that disrupted production in Madagascar in early 2000 triggered a rapid rise in world vanilla prices, which reached more than US$200/kg by the end of 2000. For three years, farmers throughout the vanilla-growing world earned unheard-of returns and responded accordingly. Farmers worldwide began feverishly planting and rehabilitating vanilla. By early 2004, the production from these increased plantings was entering a market that had contracted due to extremely high prices. By July 2004 the inevitable price collapse had begun. Prices have continued to fall since then and were about US$20/kg in mid 2007.

Vanilla Green Fruits

Adoption and history

Vanilla is a very recent cash crop in PNG. The PNG Spice Industry Board believes around 50 000 people were involved in the vanilla industry at the end of 2003. Five years earlier only a few hundred households were growing vanilla. Such meteoric industry growth is unprecedented in PNG agriculture.

The crop was first introduced to PNG in the 1960s at the Lowlands Agricultural Experiment Station at Keravat, East New Britain Province. At about the same time, plantings were made in the Wosera area of East Sepik Province. The original Wosera plantings were mainly of the Tahitian variety and were subsequently abandoned.

The foundations of today’s industry were laid in 1993, when Allan Bird (Bangui Bio Products Ltd) planted vanilla on a large block near Maprik in East Sepik Province. He encouraged smallholders around him to also plant. This provided the critical mass upon which a substantial smallholder-based industry could quickly develop once the right price incentives existed.

Nowhere in the world was the response to the huge increase in world vanilla prices as spectacular as in PNG. A combination of factors explains the PNG vanilla phenomenon:

  • PNG vanilla farmers had not experienced the previous periods of low prices and expected the high prices to continue in the future.
  • The declining value of the kina compared with the US dollar significantly increased the kina price received by PNG growers. The grower price increased 1300% over a two-year period to reach more than K700/kg.
  • Environmental conditions in parts of East Sepik Province proved ideal for vanilla production.
  • The establishment of the Bangui Bio Products Ltd plantings at Maprik had given surrounding smallholders experience in growing and producing vanilla.
  • Vanilla proved v ery attractive to villagers because it does not demand large areas of land to produce a good income.

Distribution of production and planting

Around 50–75% of PNG vanilla comes from East Sepik Province, with production concentrated in the Maprik, Dreikikir and Wosera areas. Other major producing provinces are Central, Morobe, East New Britain and Madang. Vanilla is now planted extensively in all the lowland and island provinces. While the main production areas of East Sepik Province provide ideal conditions to grow vanilla, the effect of climate was not taken into account in the rush to join the 2000 boom in the development of the industry. Many areas in which vanilla has been planted in PNG are much more humid than the vanilla-producing areas of Madagascar, Indonesia and Tonga. These locations are likely to prove unsuitable, particularly for the Bourbon variety.

Levels of production

The annual production and export of vanilla in PNG increased rapidly from about one tonne in 1997 to an estimated 200 tonnes by 2003. Within six years PNG had become the third largest producer in the world (after Madagascar and Indonesia), contributing about 10% of world production in 2003–2004. PNG production declined rapidly after 2004.

Bank of PNG data indicate that the export value of vanilla was K102 million in 2003 and K50 million in 2004, dropping to K3 million in 2005. However, these figures are probably lower than actual exports because of vanilla smuggled across the border to Indonesian Papua.

Processing, exporters and markets

The distinctive flavour and fragrance of good quality vanilla is developed by a slow curing process that is labour intensive and takes three to six months to complete. In PNG, villagers do their own curing. In other major vanilla-producing countries, curing is undertaken by specialist businesses and not by farmers. In PNG, grower curing has helped spread the benefits of the industry widely and has allowed for the participation of people in the most isolated of locations, but it has seriously lowered the quality of PNG vanilla. Many growers have little understanding of the slow and demanding requirements for successful curing. They tend to confuse the complex fermentation of vanilla curing with a drying process that they are familiar with for cocoa and copra. A necessary condition for producing quality vanilla is that the beans be harvested fully ripe. Beans that are immature when harvested will have low vanillin content and will quickly go mouldy regardless of how well they are cured.

The lack of knowledge of processing requirements is a consequence of the rapid expansion of the industry – and the lack of extension support provided. During the price boom, the practice of some traders and exporters of paying the same price regardless of quality provided little incentive to growers to learn and adopt correct curing techniques.

Vanilla marketing in PNG is disorderly and largely unregulated. At the end of 2004, 70 vanilla exporters were licensed with the Spice Industry Board. However, only 45 of these actually recorded exports and the ten largest exporters accounted for more than 90% of shipments. Several of these larger companies are representatives of overseas vanilla and spice companies, although most exporters are PNG-based companies. Some exporters apply strict standards and pay significant price premiums for quality. These exporters conduct their own farmer training programs. The results of these efforts in terms of quality have been outstanding and provide an example of how the industry can progress.

Vanilla buying is conducted over a three-month period, starting in February. All vanilla purchases are on a cash-on-delivery basis. Most East Sepik growers bring their cured bean to Wewak for sale. Buying is also conducted at Maprik, either by agents, middlemen or by exporters themselves. For security reasons large volumes are often purchased on-farm. Larger companies fund purchases from their own resources. Those linked to overseas spice companies have been financed by their overseas parent companies. Small companies found it difficult to generate a timely cash flow and many are no longer operating.

In the short term, villagers benefited from the competition created by the large number of exporters. The intense competition helped increase buying prices. However, many traders had little understanding of the product and were willing to purchase inferior quality vanilla at inflated prices. This has had a harmful effect on the quality of PNG vanilla and its overall reputation in the world market. The United States, France, Germany and Indonesia have been the main markets for PNG vanilla.

Future prospects

The vanilla industry that existed in PNG at the beginning of 2004 was based on unrealistic expectations and was not sustainable. By July 2004 prices had fallen to K125–140/kg for Grade 1 vanilla. Growers were starting to realise that poor quality (low vanillin content, over-dried, off-flavour and mouldy) product is unmarketable.

K70–80/kg is a reasonable price to plan for over the next few years. This price is unacceptably low for many present growers, particularly in light of the unrealistic expectations that were created by the boom. These growers will choose to stop producing. Some growers who have already invested in a vanilla plantation will continue to produce.

Vanilla’s high unit value and non-perishability (when cured) make it particularly attractive to remote locations with poor or non-existent road access. Vanilla fits well into PNG agricultural systems and is particularly compatible with cocoa in East Sepik Province. Cocoa provides a regular low cash return throughout much of the year and vanilla gives a significant return once a year. Cocoa, with appropriate pruning, can even be used as a support tree for vanilla.

A sustainable PNG vanilla industry could have an initial annual production base of 40–50 tonnes. This would constitute a minor but significant export industry, equivalent to rubber. Like rubber, the vanilla industry is well suited to isolated, poor, lowland areas. The industry could earn high income windfalls similar to the 2000–2004 boom, but these will be infrequent exceptions rather than the norm. The PNG vanilla industry must also make the transition to centralised curing if it is to have a sustainable future.

Even at a price of K70/kg, vanilla provides a good return to labour and land, in suitable growing areas. Farm management models indicate that 0.5 ha of vanilla earns an average of nearly K5000 per year, with returns to labour of over K50 per person-day, provided that growers produce quality bean. This is considerably higher than for most other cash crops in PNG.

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