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Ethical coffee, fair trade chocolate… Now it’s vanilla’s turn

Ethical coffee, fair trade chocolate… Now it’s vanilla’s turn

High 5 to Amie N'Dong of Social Vanilla
Interview: Daiana Contini
Photos: Tobias Nicolai

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We can taste it in our biscuits and ice creams, and smell its aroma in our soya lattes and celebrity fragrances. Such is the world’s love for vanilla that it can sometimes cost more than silver. But the African farmers who grow the precious spice see little of this value. Amie N’Dong of Social Vanilla is working to change that.

What’s the challenge that Social Vanilla is trying to address?

At Social Vanilla we promote a more stable, fair and sustainable vanilla industry.

At the moment, around 80% of all vanilla is produced in Madagascar, which makes the entire industry really unstable. If there are harvesting issues in Madagascar, the prices skyrocket, and vanilla theft directly from the farm increases. A lot of farmers start to protect their farms either by premature harvest or in some cases by patrolling their fields with weapons. When the prices are really low, farmers can decide to cut their vanilla orchids because they see no business in it.

Amie N’Dong wants to get more of the value of vanilla into the hands of the people who grow it, and help them to cope with the uncertainty of a volatile global market.

One major issue is the exploitation of vulnerable farmers by middlemen and larger companies. A lot of them set single harvest dates where the farmers need to harvest all of their vanilla. This is not good for the quality of the spice, because the green vanilla bean is not always ripe at the same time. An additional issue is that the farmers miss out on a higher price for their product. To reduce the price dependence on the Madagascan market we are seeing a number of initiatives trying to make Uganda one of the top producing countries, because it has a really strong potential to produce high quality vanilla.

What is Social Vanilla doing to make this better?

We work directly with farmers’ cooperatives [in Uganda] and we offer farmers a more flexible purchasing system compared to most other vanilla buyers. This helps us ensure the highest price for farmers, because by being available for a longer period of time during harvest season, the vanilla we pick up is ripe and of the highest quality. We are also helping vanilla farmers develop environmentally sustainable farming models such as intercropping [growing two or more different crops together] and agroforestry.

About Social Vanilla

Social Vanilla is a Danish startup working to make the vanilla industry fairer and more sustainable. It works directly with cooperatives of vanilla farmers in Uganda, and with the help of local NGOs such as Forests of the World and JESE, supports farmers with training, organisational support and technical advice. In this way Social Vanilla is able to source high quality vanilla, connect African smallholders with the international market and ensure the highest price for farmers.

“The chocolate and coffee industries have done a good job in putting sustainability at the core of their value chains, but for vanilla this is still quite new”

It takes about four to six months to cure the vanilla, after which we export it to Denmark. Here, we are focused on developing a fun and vibrant brand that at the same time brings awareness about the issues of the vanilla industry. We are really inspired by companies like Tony’s Chocolonely and, like them, we’re trying to reach a lot of consumers through the retail market.

In the last few years, the chocolate and the coffee industries have done a really good job in putting sustainability and fair trade at the core of their value chains, but for vanilla this is still quite new. While the market price for vanilla is just as high as silver, the people that grow it are able to capture very little of that value, and that’s something we want to change.

What inspired you to start the business?

It has been an interest of mine for a long time to connect smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa with the international market through cash crops. When I joined Social Foodies as head of value chain projects, I started working on the vanilla value chain in Uganda, because the price of Ugandan vanilla was going up while the quality was going down. However, we also knew that there were issues with the way farmers were paid. We decided to start a business that would be part of the solution.

What challenges have you faced along the way?

Our first challenge was definitely the pandemic – we expected to be able to travel to Uganda more often. However, from a business perspective, the situation proved to us the importance of having local implementing partners who have the local knowledge and the capacity to carry on support on our behalf. I’ve always been passionate about partnerships with NGOs because they spend years building trust with local communities and expertise in local issues.

Then, you of course have the classic startup challenge of wanting to have an impact but also creating a sustainable business. We’re constantly struggling with that. We have additional expenses compared to regular vanilla companies because we pay farmers more and we put money in transparency tools and capacity building for the farmers. It’s about finding a good balance.

“I am really proud of having created a business with a completely different approach to the norm”

What makes you most proud?

I am really proud of having created a business with a completely different approach to the norm in the industry. And it shows in the positive feedback we get from farmers, especially related to how committed we are to listening to them.

I’m also quite proud of the positive response we received in Denmark. Retail has welcomed us quite quickly and on good terms, which has been really positive and it shows that it’s worth putting more effort in the sustainability of the value chain. And because we have this impact product, the business customers are also happy to support us.

What advice would you give to others who want to make a positive impact?

If you are building a business today, don’t try to make a good business and only look at the impact afterwards, especially when you are working with smallholders, because that can be difficult. What I can see in my industry is that if you’ve already established a business where your price structure is attached to your customers and to the use of middlemen to source your product, it’s really difficult to move your business around and make sure that the farmers are getting paid enough. A lot of the time, the big companies have huge clients expecting large volumes for a certain amount of price, and that makes it very difficult to change up the price structure and pay the farmers more.

It’s easier to reverse the picture and start with a price setting that is bottom-up and ask yourself: how much do the farmers need to be paid? Can you make a business out of this?

On top of that, in our case, we have had a lot of customers interested in buying our product specifically because it’s an impact product. So, transparency is really important. We’re currently implementing a blockchain-inspired tool from Fair Food, which logs all our transactions so that we can prove to our customers that we are paying the farmers a good price. For our customers it has been a really important aspect.

Who do you want to pass a High 5 on to and why?

I would give a High 5 to Kareem Ahmed from Numba Organic, a Danish company that I worked with while at Social Foodies. Kareem is from Sudan and he created an organic superdrink company inspired by Sudanese local drinks. He started out with hibiscus and he’s now promoting local products from Africa and sourcing baobab from a women’s cooperative in Zimbabwe. He’s also a big inspiration for a lot of young people here in Denmark.

High 5 Amie!

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