Mayuge farmers decry rotting Vanilla crops over poor govt policy

There is fear of increased poverty in Mayuge district as vanilla farmers decry over-ripened crop rots in the gardens following a restriction by government not to harvest before a designated date.

One of Mayuge's vanilla lead farmers, Mr Sam Nabeta inspecting the rotting vanilla beans (Photo/Fred Simiyu)

MAYUGE, UGANDA: There is fear of increased poverty in Mayuge district as vanilla farmers decry over-ripened crop rots in the gardens following a restriction by government not to harvest before a designated date.

The farmers in the countryside of the district, most of whom wallowing in the vicious cycle of poverty but eying Vanilla cultivation as the gate of escape to salvation have turned their guns to the government. They are seeking compensation.

Government through the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries on June 27 this year, directed that there should not be any harvesting, selling or buying of vanilla throughout the country till 17 July 2023.

“I hereby declare that the appropriate Vanilla Harvest for Season 2023A shall commence on the 17th July 2023 onwards.  Farmers should remember to pick only ripe Vanilla beans. The government will take strong punitive action against anyone found harvesting, or in possession of green vanilla beans outside these dates, “the Government statement which was signed by the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fred Bwino Kyagulaga reads in part.

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 The Minister also went ahead in the statement and directed his Ministry staff, the District Production staff, the Agricultural police and the Operation Wealth Creation commanders to be vigilant and work closely with the Private Sector to popularize the said harvest dates, hunt down and expose the culprits and where possible, bring to book those involved in illicit activities. 

During a closed interview with DailyExpress, one of the vanilla lead farmers in the area, Sam Nabeta of Bubalagala village in Bukatube Sub County, bitterly blamed the government for what he termed as a baseless and non-researched policy which cannot be addressed otherwise other than as a dare economic sabotage that has caused glaring malicious damage to the residents.

“For failure by the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries to consult us on the real harvesting period of our crop in Eastern Uganda hence leading to this devastating loss of income, we demand immediate compensation from Government,” he said.

Nabeta tearfully narrated that from his five acres, he expected to harvest five thousand kilograms at the current price of Ushs. 45,000 per kilogramme could have earned him two hundred and twenty-five million shillings this season alone.

He also said if Government waits till all the vanilla rotes in his farm it will mean that he will not only lack fees for his university-going children but also go to jail for failing to pay the workers on the farm.

Other Vanilla farmers who talked to DailyExpress, Isima Mufumbiro a resident of Mashaga village in Malongo Sub County and Stephen Nseko of Kyebando in Mayuge Town Council, likewise had no kind words for Government and demanded for compensation for the loss.

Mr Michael Musitwa, the Chief Accountant to ESCO, the leading Vanilla buying company in the district did not differ from the farmers and blamed Government for having made the decision without prior consultation with the local farmers to ascertain the harvesting period.

“In comparison, vanilla matures earlier in eastern Uganda than in the western region, but Government did not take this into account when deciding on the harvesting date,” He said.

He also went ahead and blamed Government and said the not well-researched decision is likely to cause a financial loss to his company not only due to reduced quantity but also the quality of the harvested crops.

Musitwa was however quick to advise Government that if immediate intervention could be executed now by giving Mayuge district special consideration some crops would be harvested and some of the billions of shillings going down the drain saved.

Some of the rotting vanilla beans

Current situation of Vanilla in the country

According to the statement which was released by the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Industry and Fisheries on June 27 this year, vanilla is one of the high-value crops grown in 35 districts of Uganda, mainly in Central, Eastern and Western parts of the country. 

Globally, vanilla is a spice used to add flavour to food, beverages, in cosmetics and can also be used in pharmaceutical industries.  It is consumed in one way or another especially in flavoured drinks, dairy products, sweet foods, cosmetic products as well as pharmaceutical products. 

In Uganda Vanilla has proved to be a profitable crop for farmers, despite its fluctuating prices on the international market. According to MAAIF (2020), Vanilla takes 3 years to first harvest from the time of establishment.  A farmer can spend about Ugx 5.0 million to establish and manage 1 acre of vanilla in the first 2 years.  From the third year, a farmer can harvest about 2-3kgs of beans per plant. Therefore, from the 450 Plants in an acre, a farmer can harvest about 1000 Kgs in the first year. If sold at a price of Ugx. 40,000/= (Season B, 2022), a farmer will earn a net profit of Ugx 35 million from one acre of Vanilla.  

 However, currently, there is an increase in global stocks of vanilla which may cause a decline in demand and price of vanilla in the next few harvest seasons in all vanilla-growing countries, not only Uganda.  

The reasons for this include; reduced global consumer demand and global buyers stocking up in anticipation of crop failure in Madagascar, the leading producer of Vanilla in the world. Consequently, the current global supply became higher than global demand. Until global buyers deplete their current stocks and begin buying again, they may not be able to buy as much as expected and even if they do, this might probably be at lower prices than anticipated. 

However, the issue of quality in Uganda’s vanilla subsector remains more critical than ever as Uganda seeks to position itself to be a competitive and reliable origin of vanilla, second to Madagascar.

Notably, in its November 2021 Vanilla Market Update, Aust & Hachmann, a global vanilla buyer indicated that: “Of all the major producing regions for vanilla, we believe that Uganda has shown the most significant improvement in terms of quality over the past few seasons – which is welcome news for those seeking an alternative to Madagascar”.  

 When allowed to mature, properly cured vanilla beans from Uganda can yield vanillin levels higher than any other vanilla origin.

Vanilla production from two annual harvests is increasing rapidly. According to Uganda Export Promotion Board (UEPB, 2023), Uganda exported 89.038 Tons of cured vanilla worth 8.33 million USD by March, 2023.

 Major markets for Uganda’s Vanilla include; USA, Indonesia, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, Mauritius, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Denmark, Check Republic, Switzerland and the Republic of Korea 

The global vanilla market size was valued at USD 2,854.99 million in 2021. It is projected to reach USD 4,701.91 million by 2030, during the forecast period (2022–2030). This indicates that the Global demand for Vanilla is on the increase due to its diverse/widespread use in the food and perfume industries.  

 Despite the recent drop in farm gate prices, vanilla prices remain high relative to other cash crops. This makes it a very attractive crop for smallholder farmers. Vanilla, as we have seen over the past several years has the potential to transform the lives of rural Ugandans if it is managed consistently, properly and harvested when fully matured.  

 Regrettably, vanilla’s high value has also led to a number of serious issues including; Theft of vanilla beans, robbery, Murders, premature harvesting and trade in poor quality beans, poor processing, illicit trade against a backdrop of an absent/weak regulatory framework hence compromising the quality of Uganda’s Vanilla and negating our competitiveness. This has destabilized the subsector as farmers, looking to secure a return on their investment before it is stolen, have resorted to early harvesting.  

  It is evident that picking immature beans reduces the consistency and overall quality of vanilla and damages Uganda’s reputation among global buyers. This further contributes to a reduction in the overall demand for natural vanilla among global buyers, hence putting additional pressure on volumes and prices. 

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Government past interventions

 According to the June this year ministerial statement, the Government of Uganda, through MAAIF, working in partnership with farmers, District Local Governments, Processors, and key promoters of vanilla including the Association of the Vanilla Exporters of Uganda (VANEX) and the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Vines project, committed to sustaining the quality gains made over the past several years.  

 Since 2019, MAAIF has worked with stakeholders each season to evaluate the state of maturity of the crop and declare a national Vanilla harvest date. Setting and enforcing a harvest date, which marks the start of the national harvest period. This commitment delivered results that have been appreciated by global buyers for the past three years.  

 In recent years, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries in collaboration with key vanilla stakeholders have provided guidance on vanilla harvesting. And have committed to continue with this measure whenever the harvesting season approaches. 

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