Growing vanilla in Tanzania
MEDA partnership helps with irrigation, training
As printed in The Marketplace - May/June 2018
Like many Tanzanian farmers, Martha Kisanga has a lot on the go.
She grows a dozen crops on her three-acre property in Lyamungo Village in the Machame area of Tanzania.
Squash, corn, yams, coffee and bananas have been among the mainstays until the last few years, when she began growing half an acre of vanilla.
She has three dairy cows that supply milk for her household plus a bit more to sell to neighbors. The primary value of her cows is in the by- product. Cow dung provides a free source of fertilizer to promote the growth of various crops. She needs to buy more cows to have enough fertilizer on hand.
Kisanga is also a lead farmer who has received training from MEDA partner NEI (story on previous page). She works with other farmers in quarterly training sessions that include best practices in planting, use of mulching and bio-pesticides, reducing harvest losses, and where to take beans after harvest. She is paid for her time, which includes recruiting new producers, and has an incentive to ensure farmers she works with do well, receiving a percentage from their production.
She harvests between 15-20 kilograms (33-44 pounds) of vanilla pods annually. Vanilla is by far the most lucrative crop of the many she grows. Top quality beans, 17 centimetres (almost seven inches) or larger, fetch $30 a kilogram. Smaller pods sell for $20 a kg. Martha earned about $400 US from the vanilla she sold to NEI in 2017.
Vanilla has to be pollinated by hand, producing one bean per flower, a labor-intensive process. The plant flowers for three months. Six months later, the harvest starts, continuing between July and October. Vanilla vines are not terribly thirsty. But they do need a regular drink, about a litre of water per week. That’s increasingly a problem in some parts of Tanzania. There is a short rainy season of a month or two from the end of November to early January, followed by a couple of months without rain. A longer rainy season begins in April. Then it gets really dry again in September and October. Many crops can’t wait that long for water.
Climate change is leading to more erratic weather patterns. Some years the short rainy season hardly comes at all. “Every year it’s different,” says Neil Ashworth, NEI’s deputy supply chain manager. “Some years you have heavy long rains, and other years, you miss the short rains completely.”
Getting water from a nearby river is neither practical nor sustainable.
That’s where MEDA and NEI come in, by helping farmers like the Kisangas harvest rainwater from the roofs of their homes into large plastic collection tanks.
The project will supply 300 farmers with tanks, giving them a dependable water source during the dry months. “The more that we can supply (with barrels), that have no access, or very little access to water on the farm, it makes a big difference for them, not only in terms of vanilla, but other crops,” Ashworth said. “They are able to water in the dry season. It helps them with their income.”
MEDA also does training to promote capacity-building. NEI provides vanilla cuttings to farmers, covering 80 per cent of the cost. Farmers pay the other 20 per cent. A two-metre vine takes four years to reach a harvest. ◆