Growing vanilla promises profits for peasant farmers in Uganda, as a new awareness campaign bears fruit.
By Orla Ryan
Aga Sekalala is used to the sweet smell of vanilla.
But when visitors come to his vanilla processing plant, it is often the first thing they comment on.
The plant is down a dusty road in Gayaza, a small town situated about 20 kilometres outside of Kampala, Uganda.
Workers sorting vanilla at the plant
There Mr Sekalala dries and steams vanilla for export to America, the world's biggest buyer of vanilla.
His buyer in America can sell his produce to Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, or makers of vanilla ice cream. There is massive demand for vanilla and there is no substitute, vanilla experts say.
This year, world vanilla buyers are expected to want about 2,000 tonnes of vanilla this year, but there is only likely to be 1,800 tonnes for sale.
In this scenario, Uganda's apparently small output of 100 tonnes acquires greater significance.
In the past two years, Indonesia and Madagascar, two of the world's largest producers of vanilla, have seen their production fall.
Profits for small farmers
Now, Mr Sekalala gets $120 for every kilogramme of vanilla he exports.
And of that $120, the peasant farmers who grow the crop, will get between 35,000 and 50,000 Ugandan shillings, or $17 to $25.
"I have never in my life seen anything as profitable for smallholders as vanilla," said Steve New, a horticultural adviser for more than 25 years.
He works at a USAID-funded project, Investment in Developing Export Agriculture (IDEA).
IDEA has worked with Mr Sekalala and other processors to develop Uganda's vanilla crop.
Vanilla has been grown in Uganda before, but its commercial success was short-lived, interrupted by the Idi Amin regime.
In 1990, Mr Sekalala sat down with a World Bank-linked consultancy firm and started to assess the feasibility of growing vanilla in Uganda. The results of the study were positive.
Then, Mr Sekalala set up his company UVAN and started to recruit outgrowers, organising them in districts and training them.
"We started with 20 farmers in one small district, then we went on expanding," Mr Sekalala said.
They now operate in 28 districts, while zone leaders organise transport of the vanilla to UVAN.
"If I don't train them, they won't do it, I want the bean," Mr Sekalala said.
"We have also used radio extensively, we have a radio play, teaching people how to use vanilla."
Boon for peasant farmers
Thousands of peasant farmers around Uganda are now growing vanilla in fields where they once grew coffee, according to Mr Sekalala.
"We tried to grow it ourselves. We decided to depend on outgrowers, it is really a peasant crop, you have to pollinate by hand," he added.
"It is very, very laborious. It is supported best if it is a family, a husband, wife, children, pollinating 500 plants by hand."
The nature of this pollination means that the smallholder has an advantage over plantations.
"Managing that labour with efficiency as a plantation is very difficult," IDEA's Steve New said.
IDEA's involvement in the project is now set to end as private sector interest has grown. Mr Sekalala is now one of 10 vanilla exporters, who have formed their own association.
He is optimistic Uganda's market share can continue to grow but advises caution. "We need to do research, we need to do funding.
"Without doing research, we won't know about disease or market, it will be like coffee, it is too late now," he said.