Vanilla is one of the orphaned crops by Kenyan farmers yet according to experts the crop can fetch a farmer over Ksh.16,000 per tree if well taken care of. This is because it has a wide areas of application that include flavouring food, drinks, soaps, ointments, perfumes and incenses.
A tree of vanilla can bear up to 80 beans. Only one vanilla bean measuring 10 to 12 centimetres long goes for Sh.200 and given an acre can accommodate over 200 trees, a farmer can be sure of raking Ksh.3.2 million within three years after planting.
“Vanilla has huge monetary value attached to it despite the fact that it is not famous among our own farmers. The crop is well grown in other countries such as Uganda, Comoros and Madagascar in both small and large scale,” said Shabbir Burbar, director of Maimun Ingredients Company which deals in food flavours, food colour, food-grade ingredients and additives for manufacture of food and drink products.
“Farmers may be shying away from the crop because of the duration it takes to mature but most parts of Kenya have the right condition for its cultivation and there is both local and export markets ready upon its maturity.”
According to Burbar, the major export markets for vanilla beans include European countries and the United States though the demand depends on the quality.
“Since 1990s I saw my uncle import vanilla from Madagascar or Uganda but Madagascar vanilla was his favourite because it is of quality than the Ugandan vanilla,” said Burbar.
Vanilla can also be used in baking and dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, and ice creams, and in desserts, chocolates, cookies, pancake and soft cheese.
There are several companies and suppliers in Kenya such as Noble Cause Enterprises in Nakuru, Signature Spice, Katco Ltd in Nairobi, Dahiraan Enterprises Ltd and Risola Foods among others which were dealing in vanilla about 16 years ago but were forced to close up or change to other lines of business due to low supply from farmers.
“I decided to focus on honey production and supply after dropping vanilla several years back because there were less vanilla farmers who could not meet our supply demand and there were no signs of more farmers taking up the venture,” said Mr. Vincent Labatt, Entrepreneur and Owner of Noble Cause Enterprises.
“At a point we started importing from Uganda where there is more vanilla farming with the hope that the situation will improve in Kenya but we finally decided to stop vanilla business when we found it was no longer economical importing the produce.”
In October 2015 Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) launched programmes to increase vanilla seedlings, which were scarce, using tissue culture technology. The move was expected to attract more farmers in hot and humid areas like the Coast, lake regions and parts of western Kenya to take up the business.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron, due to highly labor-intensive methods of cultivation according to a Ugandan news journal.
Vanilla is a crop that is seldom grown in Kenya. However, a farmer in Mwapala, Kwale County, is reaping big from the crop, that fetches as high as Sh.25,000 a kilo.
“I ventured into vanilla farming in 2018, and this will be my fifth year growing vanilla,” says Andrew Simiyu, who owns Kusini Farm.
“I stumbled upon it while conducting research on the most lucrative plants one can grow here in the tropics, and quickly realized it grows in places with similar weather conditions as ours.”
He says that it cost him Sh.250,000 capital since the crop was imported. Nevertheless, he reveals that it is now cheap to start as vines are easily accessible.
He started growing the crop on one acre, then expanded to two acres, and he intends to increase the acreage to ten.
“Vanilla requires shade and support to thrive; therefore, I took advantage of the trees that are available in the farm such as mango trees and cashew nut trees,” says the father of one.
He started with 1,000 vines but lost half the crop due to lack of experience and extreme drought. He, however, later recovered and now, he has about 3,000 vines.
Currently, the farmer sells vanilla vines at different prices depending on size. He sells a 60cm-80cm cutting at Sh.150, one metre cutting at Sh.300 and one and a half metre cutting at Sh.500.
“The longer the cutting, the faster it will reach maturity. For 60-80cm cutting, it will take two to three years,” says the farmer, who grows a variety known as vanilla planifolia.
For me, it takes two years to mature and another six months to bear fruits after flowering, but the duration to maturity depends on the length of cutting/vine. The longer one, let’s say one and a half metre, matures faster than shorter ones,” says Mr Simiyu.
Before he ventured into vanilla farming, he did a lot of research and travelled to several places in order to get firsthand knowledge of the crop.
The main challenge he faced at the beginning was mainly lack of water, especially given that the county suffers extreme dry spells. Also, he says that vanilla is labour-intensive during planting and pollination, which is done by hand and not by bees.
Akilo of treated vanilla goes for Sh.25,000, the farmer says.
“We are selling our beans locally and in most cases, clients contact us from recommendations. Here in Kwale County, we sell some of our produce in Diani Beach, where there are hotels, resorts and tourists,” adds the farmer.
“Vanilla farming is very rewarding and I highly encourage those who have available land and a passion for farming to take it up. It will definitely change you and your family’s life. It is also a long-term venture as the plant can keep producing up to ten years or more with good management,” says the 35-year-od.
The farmer adds that in the near future, he intends to expand his capacity to ten thousand plants, to produce enough for export and for sale locally.
“Also, to set up a vanilla training facility at our farm for other farmers to come and learn from,” he reveals.
Vanilla is used to add flavour to drinks such as yoghurt. The produce is also used to make some medicines.
The idea of vanilla farming in Kenya is still a soft target that you can take on. Remember, nothing good comes on a silver platter. You can either wait for things to happen or go out and make them happen.
Written ByJustine Nyachieo
Business Man & Mentor