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Vanilla in Madagascar

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Vanilla in Madagascar

Madagascar produces 80% of the world’s vanilla. After the harvest, vanilla beans go through a long and complex process during which their typical aroma is developed. Vanilla is used in a lot of packaged foods and has become a valuable raw material, like gas or ore. It’s the most volatile spice on the planet in terms of cost. Big global food corporations as well as perfume makers are dependent on it.

Prices for one kilo of vanilla have skyrocketed in recent years. The high price of vanilla brings a lot of cash and crime to Madagascar’s north. There have been increasingly more theft and criminality within the farming communities. Villages set up defence forces trained by the local gendarmerie, and thieves are sometimes killed by farmers in mob-justice. The local gendarmes try to do their best to patrol the area but the institution is underfunded and ineffective. Most people in the business hire private security guards and carry their own guns at all times.

Once the vanilla is cured and ready for export, it‘s shipped off the island either by boat or by plane. Air Madagascar handles cargo, but the packages are often „lost“ or stolen in their hangars, so big-time exporters resort to renting private aircrafts. In the summer months, planes owned by the private airline Madagasikara Airways land at Sambava airport up to three times a day, picking up all the region’s vanilla and flying it to Antananarivo, where it is then put on reliable commercial aircrafts and flown all across the globe. Renting the plane costs $65.000 for one trip, and it can transport up to five tons of vanilla in one go, which is worth more than two million US dollars.

Personal project, and assignments for Bloomberg Businessweek and Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 2018-2019