Madagascar’s vanilla sector thrown into turmoil

Friday October 08 2021

There is theft of vanilla from fields between March to July when harvesting starts. PHOTO | AFP


Madagascar’s vanilla industry is facing uncertain times with organised and violent theft threatening to bring it down.

The industry is a magnet for corruption and laundering of money from illegal logging of rosewood hardwood trees, which contributed to vanilla’s price bubble that incentivised criminal groups to orchestrate theft of the spice.

According to research by Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC) the desire to get the spice has increased insecurity.

In a report entitled “Madagascar’s vanilla industry has become a magnet for corruption, money laundering and criminality,” GI-TOC says growers have been subjected to organised theft of prized crop, some of which ended in violence, either with farmers killed while attempting to protect their produce or would-be thieves being executed in form of mob justice.

“Much of this turmoil has been in Sava region in Madagascar’s north-east, which for years has been main region for production where up to 90 percent of the population are reliant on vanilla cultivation,” said the investigative body that spearheads fight against corruption with other organised crimes.

Some farmers in Sambava district in Sava region faced with devastating losses from theft have turned to private protection, paying guards about $100 monthly to guard plants and stocks of harvested vanilla.


There is theft of vanilla from fields between March to July when harvesting starts. The theft can turn violent as thieves are armed with long knives or firearms. There are cases of poisonings and attempted murders during vanilla thefts.

Fraud occurs between growers and ‘collectors’ (intermediaries) taking vanilla from farmers, and higher-level operators engaged in export business. Collectors may take farmers vanilla but fail to make promised payments.

The circle is repeated by higher-level operators who do not to pay collectors.

“These types of crimes rise particularly before and after the official harvest. Victims take time to come forward because they are waiting on payments from bigger operators---payments that never appear,” said Mr Ratovoson.

Boom in prices due to low harvest years, rising demand for natural vanilla flavouring and speculation by intermediary buyers in the market saw global cost of spice increase tenfold between 2013 and 2018.

Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime said the ‘vanilla fever’ which made some producers rich has been described as a ‘short-lived El Dorado’, bringing with it insecurity, criminality and corruption.

It said a free fall of prices from the 2018 highs led to the government in February 2020 imposing minimum price first of $350/kg and later $250/kg for vanilla exported in an attempt to stabilise the market.

Criminal activity has followed the minimum price policy that targeted to preserve businesses of smallholder producers. Sharp fall in prices in the domestic market has led to buyers hesitant to export vanilla at price higher than other international offerings, unwilling to commit to buy the produce.