Minimally sought after at home, heavily demanded globally, vanilla. Growing the spice has been a craze in Uganda, but farmers are now questioning whether it is worth it.
When Mukasa ventured into vanilla in 2018, he was banking on hopes of making money. The spice was selling at $80 per kilogram at the time, but he also knew that could fall tenfold.
“I decided to plant it targeting 20,000 shillings per kilogram. So that is when I started planting, but then I also started small, with around five plants, so I went up adding more and more with time,” Dan Mukasa, a vanilla farmer based in Luwero, central Uganda.
To protect vanilla farmers, the government started declaring the harvesting period - a probable time that considers patterns in the different regions of the country. The beans mature first in the west.
The official harvesting period opened on July 17. As dealers wind up with sales, farmers are already planning for the next harvest. “The date that we set is not absolute. It is either minus or plus – it is an estimate. You can’t have a single date for all growers across the country, and yet we have different agronomical regions in this country”, Kyakulaga Fred Bwino, state minister for agriculture.
Local exporters are raising concerns over the reduced consistency and quality, which cuts down on demand-fit Ugandan vanilla globally.
The designated harvesting period may offer some level of security, but to farmers it is not enough.
As Mukasa explains, “yes, someone can still be harvesting now but remember it is open time for everyone to sell, then you have more chances of having thieves to come and pick your vanilla because no one will ask them where they got it from. But before that time, no one can sell vanilla. But now if it is selling time, anyone can sell vanilla no matter where they got it from.”
The fluctuation on the global market has left vanilla farmers stranded. A kilogram now goes for a little over $1. The government is asking farmers to be patient. “Because it has a unique characteristic, we advise those that already have it not to destroy it because you will destroy it today and tomorrow the demand will again go up, and the price will again go up, so please be patient,” Kyakulaga Fred Bwino, state minister for agriculture.
Government statistics show that by the end of 2022, the country exported vanilla worth $11 million.
From his two-acre farm, Dan’s first harvest is just a few kilograms, but when his and the output of all growers in Uganda is aggregated, the country ranks number two exporter of vanilla on the content after Madagascar.