Sustainable projects affecting the vanilla supply chain in Madagascar are strengthening and an increase in demand for organic ingredients is an encouraging sign for PROVA, a company that fosters environmental and raw-material friendly processes.

Imagine dairy products, ice cream or biscuits without natural vanilla flavour. Yet, 80% of the world’s supply of vanilla comes from Madagascar – one of the poorest countries on Earth.

The vanilla context

After peaking in 2004, prices fell, affecting 80,000 vanilla bean producers on the island. Recently, the price has stabilised. This means a Malagasy family that farms rice to eat and vanilla to sell, lives on a daily income of $1.

“The precarious situation has contributed to some degradation in quality,” says Alessandra Lerouvillois, CSO at PROVA. This means harvesting earlier to sell before others or putting beans in vacuum packages to limit evaporation and gain weight; in both cases, this is at the expense of the aromatic maturation of the bean. “Five years of low prices led to a serious quality problem during 2012.”

A comprehensive and coherent approach

The French company has initiated a sustainable vanilla programme structured around its export partner and Avabe, an association of farmers in the Sava region, which is known for producing some of the best qualities of vanilla in the world.

The programme has been running for two years now with the help of an NGO on site, Vanille Durable Bemanevika (VDB), which encourages the improvement of education, health, nutrition and the environment. It coordinates actions to improve the living conditions of the villagers and enables them to look after their production.

This year, PROVA and VDB have confirmed their commitment through various creative initiatives and partnerships. In June 2014, a student association helped to develop a ‘Happy Families’ game with the purpose of raising awareness of the basic rules of hygiene among pupils. Before the end of 2014, VDB will start a French refresher course for the EPP teachers; paper-based PHRs will be distributed to follow up on the health of children 6–14 years old and, for the new school year, nutritional flour supply will be expanded to seven villages where it will benefit not only the EPP students but also the ones enrolled in public schools.

A virtuous transformation

A second harvest will get under way during late 2014 and should represent almost half of the supply of organic vanilla that would eventually cover the entire demand for this certified raw material. With the organic certification, all production conditions are know and PROVA has the information by plot. With the conventional processes, vanilla produced by the 80,000 producers of Madagascar goes from the collectors to the processors, which makes traceability not as accurate.

In response to the traceability needs of its clients, PROVA is working towards developing a traceable vanilla from its sustainable vanilla project, which would not be organic. Over time, PROVA plans to offer organic and conventional vanilla beans through this programme. “During my trip to Madagascar, I saw the results of the awareness raised among farmers and have thus observed a return to good curing practices by Avabe members – a fine quality of the beans harvested at maturity; higher vanillin levels; massive return to drying on racks in the sun in the villages; and the dropping of vacuum packaging,” says Lerouvillois.

"The programme has been running for two years with the help of VDB."

As with all natural products, there are social, environmental and economic challenges around the cultivation of vanilla. Just like the cocoa sector, suppliers are fully committed to the production of vanilla beans and this commitment is finally paying off.

PROVA’s headquarters in France showed its passion and support by participating in the Oxfam Trailwalker 2014. The CEO, CSO, lab manager and UK salesman signed up to the challenge, and were accompanied by a dozen employee supporters.

They successfully rallied the whole international sales team and agents behind the cause under PROVA and VDB colours. So much so that the quartet proudly crossed the finish line lighthearted.