A Strong Community Along the Value Chain

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How Symrise Secures the Sourcing and Quality of Vanilla

The demand for natural vanilla is rising continuously. With it the price of the world’s most popular spice is increasing, mainly because in the past years production has grownslower than the demand for natural flavors. The vanilla market is a complex market, especially when it comes to high-quality bourbon vanilla. Bourbon vanilla comes exclusively from the climatically optimal islands in the Indian Ocean, today mainly from Madagascar, to a lesser extent from the Comoros and La Reunion. The latter was formerly called “Ile Bourbon,” having pioneered artificial pollination in the mid-19th century and having become a major producer and eponym of Bourbon vanilla.

The elaborate method of manual pollination and traditional curing characterize the work of vanilla farmers to this day: vanilla is a demanding natural product, and anyone wanting to understand this market needs to know that.In this situation, especially aroma providers are challenged to secure the supply in terms of quality and quantity. And due to this special market structure, it is essential for them to be present locally in Madagascar.

Madagascar as the hub for vanilla

Already in 2007, Symrise took this important step. At the time a pioneer in the industry, the company decided on a long-term oriented, intensive and holistic engagement in Madagascar. “Our insight was that strong direct business relations with the vanilla producers are essential,” Yannick Leen explains, in a nutshell. Leen is the Global Competence Director for vanilla at Symrise, and in this role, has insights both on the production side as well as on user requirements and expectations. He adds: “For our customers in the food industry, we can only secure the quality and quantity of our vanilla offer if we manage to positively influence the value chain at the respective critical points.So, we started our engagement in Madagascar with a long-term perspective. We started to build a community.”

Thanks to their approach in Madagascar, Symrise today has a working relationship withmore than6,000 vanilla farmers in the Sava region, the main vanilla production area in the country. In total,there are around 80,000 farmerson the island. Most of these producers are very small family businesses that are heavily dependent on vanilla. Initially,Symrise started working with one single farmers’ organization for fair trade. Since 2012, the aroma producer has been buying the harvest directly from the farmers, ensuring that they receive a fair price. On the basis of these direct contacts, Symrise has launched a series of programs that on the one hand strengthen the independence of farmers and on the otherensure the quality and quantity of their vanilla purchase.

Extensive measures for the local community

First, Symrise launched a training program to provide farmers with knowledge in agriculture. The objective was to replace ineffective global farm management with a local one and to strengthen the producersat the same time. The success of this initiative allowed the company to establish contactswith new producers. Besides improving vanilla cultivation, the program was also about crop diversification to enhance the farmers’ resilience. Since this requires more than knowledge, around 125,000 clove plants and 150,000 cocoa plants were provided through further programs. In order to sustainably consolidate its programs, Symrise works together with the local authorities in Madagascar and, where necessary, provides upfront payments on the crops. This decreases the pressure on the farmers, allowing them to cover living expenses and wait with harvestinguntil the vanilla beans are fully mature. Together, these various measures significantly improve the quality of the vanilla offer.

With a view to the next generation, Symrise subsidizes 80 elementary schools with a total of 20,000 students. Three agricultural schools have been set up and receive long-term funding, with 170 young people enrolledin the three-year course. More than 200 primary school teachers were trained in environmental education. 80,000 forest plants and 300,000 seeds were distributed. Further, Symrise supports the mapping of ecosystems and maintains partnerships with Madagascar’s national parks. Lastly, Symrise has played a central role in introducing a health insurance system in the Sava region, providing 16,500 people from its supply chain with access to medical assistance.


10 years of commitment have paid off

Other flavor suppliers besides Symrise are also involved in various projects in Madagascar. Symrise manager Leen welcomes this and points out that, “any structural aid to Madagascar will ultimately improve the situation on the vanilla market.”On behalf of Symrise, he adds: “At first glance, it may seem as we are doing the same things as the others. If you look closer, you realize that we in fact are doing things differently. Our team of 35 permanent employees in the region has gained confidence through long-term, holistic and sustainable engagement through many programs.Today it is firmly integrated in the local community as a fair partner. Being part of this community, we can now really make a difference – and we do.”

For example, in addition to its permanent staff, Symrise has also tasked a team of trainersto educate farmers with regard to enhancedproduction and harvesting of vanilla, cocoa, and cloves, and conservation agriculture to promote soil conservation. Last but not least, to ensure self-sufficiency and autonomy, field schools have been set up where farmers can share their own experiences with vanilla and other crops. In total, about 6,000 farmers were trained over the course of five years. In turn, these vanilla farmers are asked to participate in an audit process each year, so that the progress of each farm can be measured. More than 5,600 of themwere audited by externalcertification bodies in 2017 and wereRainforest or Fair Trade certified.

Ensuring quality and quantity for vanilla sourcing long-term

Today, with its own team of 35 permanent employees and the direct network of around 6,000 farmers, Symrise has privileged access to vanilla offerings. When purchasing vanilla on the local markets, the company itself records which certified farm each vanilla pod comes from and then checks its quality. This allows Symrise to closely follow production. “This is an important aspect both for quality assurance, and also toensure that social and economic standards are being met. For many of our customers in the food industry, especially brands, this is very important,” explains Leen.

In addition to production, Symrise also manages the processing of vanilla in Madagascar. In its own plant, the green vanilla podsare fermented and processed, and the end result are the familiar black pods. For this purpose, around 200 employees are hired whohave many years of experience and specialist knowledge in traditional vanilla processing. In turn, Symrise gains additional access through these employees to further sellers of fully developed vanilla pods.

“Over the course of ten years, a community hasgrown here that brings together stakeholders from the entire value chain. Thanks to this community, we now have access to the best available quality and the quantities required, in particular in the current bottleneck and high-price situation, allowing us to ensure supply for our customers,” summarizes Leen. He states: “What makes a successful community is a balance between giving and taking. Our long-term perspective and commitment have paid off, as have our fair business practices. Hereupon we continue our commitment.”


Yannick Leen
Global Taste Competence Director Vanilla