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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 October 2006, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Comoros hit by vanilla competitors
By Daniel Dickinson
BBC News, Grande Comore

Vanilla flower and bean on Grande Comore
Vanilla is Grande Comore's main export crop
Eighty-year-old farmer Yusuf Mzee Ali gently squeezes the leaves of a vanilla flower between his thumb and index finger.

This is a one-time process which - in nine months' time - will lead to the growth of a 10 cm-long green vanilla pod or bean.

The Comoran farmer from the island of Grande Comore, one of three islands that make up this Indian Ocean archipelago, works in deep tropical undergrowth in the shadow of the massive volcano which dominates the landscape.

Vanilla has sustained him and many other families across Grande Comore for generations, but now plummeting prices in the world vanilla market has left him a poor man.

Just three years ago, a kilo of processed vanilla beans was selling for up to $600 (319). Now the price is around $20-30.

"We have to hope that the price increases," Yusuf says. "But all we can do is wait. In the meantime, I'll grow a few bananas and manioc to feed the family. This year we're not going to have any money to spend."

'Special flavour'

Many vanilla aficionados will tell you that the world's best bourbon-style vanilla is to be found on the Comoros islands. The fertile volcanic soil and humid climate make it an ideal location to grow the crop.

A worker sifts vanilla beans in Grande Comore
Curing vanilla beans is a labour-intensive process

AGK is the country's biggest exporter of vanilla. Its warehouse hangs heavy with the intoxicating, sweet aroma - tickling taste buds with the flavour of ice cream, custard, cookies and other delicious foodstuffs.

It is here that the green beans turn into the cured, brown ones found on the shelves of gourmet delicatessens across the world.

It takes five to six months of intensive work to process the bean, according to AGK's jovial vanilla-loving owner, Amine Kalfane.

"We have teams of workers who every day sort through the vanilla," he says. "It's the sweat on their palms which adds to the special flavour of vanilla. It is a labour of love.

"We say that vanilla is like a second wife. If you don't look after her, then you will have a lot of problems with her."

Oversupply

For now the Comoran love affair with vanilla has turned from sweet to bitter. The historically high prices of 2003/04 have paradoxically ruined the market for the Comoros.

Other developing countries such as Uganda, Indonesia and India cultivated thousands of new plants in the hope of harvesting huge profits.

Map of Comoros

Meanwhile, international buyers of vanilla were scared off by the high prices and started using cheaper synthetic vanilla products instead of the real thing.

Both developments have driven down the price.

"We are faced with a simple situation: an oversupply of vanilla on the world market," Mr Kalfane says.

"The world demand is about 1,700 tonnes a year, but already Madagascar, the world leader, will produce between 1,800-2,000 tonnes this year. Uganda will produce around 200 tonnes and the Comoros around 60 to 80."

Madagascan vanilla is substantially cheaper than Comoran vanilla largely because - unlike the Comoran franc - the country's currency, the ariary, is not pegged to the euro.

The price per kilo of vanilla for the October harvest is expected to stay around $20-30 - barely a break-even price for producers in the Comoros, a situation of which the government is all too aware.

"Vanilla is our main export crop. Probably 90% of the people on Grande Comore are involved one way or another in the vanilla market," said Ahmed Abdallah from the Ministry of Agriculture.

"If the price decreases it affects everybody."

The one hope for Comoran vanilla is its quality. Buyers of the more expensive gourmet vanilla beans, as opposed to industrial vanilla which is used to manufacture vanilla essence, are still, to some extent, loyal to the quality of Comoran bourbon vanilla.

Farmers like Yusuf Mzee Ali hope that loyalty could help to bring back the sweet smell of success.


SEE ALSO
Vanilla sweetens Indians' lives
24 Feb 04 |  South Asia
Country profile: Comoros
17 May 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Comoros
16 May 06 |  Country profiles



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