Mubuku vanilla farmers ready for the next step

07 May 2013

Vanilla is a picky crop. In its native environment in Central America, the plant relies on a symbiotic relationship with a species of bee for pollination before vanilla beans sprout. When grown in other parts of the world, the labour intensive crop requires hand pollination. This partnership between farmer and plant results in a valuable crop and one of the world’s most expensive spices.

The 6,000 small-scale farmers of the Mubuku Moringa Vanilla Farmers’ Association in western Uganda understand the importance of this relationship and how strong partnerships can yield great returns. Working with the Ndali Organic Factory – a processing plant in the district of Kassese – and Fairtrade, the association has experienced strong growth and now has the ability to consider what’s next for its members.

Successful partnerships

The manager of the Ndali Organic Vanilla Factory was a key person in the formation of Mubuku Moringa Vanilla Farmers’ Association. The farmers’ lands, originally part of a vanilla plantation, were annexed by the government during Idi Amin’s despotic rule in the seventies. After the land was restored, the current owners abandoned the plantation strategy. Cultivating vanilla on small plots results in higher quality and so the processor opted to buy vanilla from the small-scale farmers in the area.

But the vanilla producers and Ndali faced hard times when the international market plummeted in 2005. Rock bottom was reached in 2007/8 when vanilla was being sold at US$2.5 per kilogram. The farmers recognised the need to form an association to face this challenge jointly and Ndali Organic Vanilla Factory helped the group become Fairtrade certified, covering the certification cost with a sales fund set up for this purpose.

Beyond their expectations

While they had hoped to receive US$3.4 per kilogram of Fairtrade vanilla pods (in their first year), they actually earned US$3.75 per kilogram. The farmers receive an initial payment – the conventional price – upon collection of their vanilla crop by the processor. After six months of drying and sorting, the processor sells the vanilla to international buyers, 30 percent of it under Fairtrade terms. The farmers then receive a second payment based on these Fairtrade sales. The farmers’ situation began to improve.

With the additional income, farmers in Balimi, one of the many villages in the district, have been able to build houses of bricks and cement, while others invested in cattle. Most members now own a mobile phone, a valuable asset in the isolated district.

The Fairtrade premium, which they receive on top of payment for their crop, is invested in education projects. The villagers decide democratically on how to spend the premium and have prioritised education as the most important tool to improve livelihoods. Since the quality of government schools in the area is relatively poor, the farmers use the premium to pay private school fees.

An indirect effect of Fairtrade according to the farmers from Balimi is that families now work together more frequently and they have noted a reduction in domestic violence. Overall, the position of women in the village has improved. Women take part in the leadership of the association and voice their opinions and needs. They also attend training workshops in micro-finance and agricultural techniques.

Mubuku also invested a portion of the premium in the purchase of six hectares of land. Over the next ten years the association plans to build offices and a boarding school. The association will also use the title to the land as collateral to acquire loans from financial institutions for their members.

Next steps

The farmers of Mubuku have seen the impact of working together and are hungry for more. Some farmers are hoping to certify their coffee as Fairtrade. But maybe more importantly, the association has reached a position where it is discussing strategic steps to move up the value chain. Ideas include developing their own processing facility or buying into the existing factory.

While discussions are still in process, it is safe to say that the farmers of Mubuku and Ndali have learned from the vanilla plant that a bountiful harvest comes from strong relationships.

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