Uganda vanilla farmers fight plunging prices, theft

Uganda vanilla farmers fight plunging prices, theft

NTENJERU – Ugandan villagers eye each other suspiciously as they reap their vanilla, a small but valuable crop that last year brought unprecedented wealth to poor rural communities in the east African country.

Residents of Ntenjeru sub-county, a centre of Ugandan vanilla production, paid armed security guards for months to protect their vines ahead of the harvest. As the beans used in one of the world’s most popular food flavourings are plucked and driven to processors for export, a dramatic plunge in prices has caused tempers to flare.The vanilla price on the international market is currently around US$130 (N$780) per kg (2.2 lb) compared with US$400 in April 2003 .Ugandan farmers are getting about US$4 a kilo for raw vanilla.Last year’s price was around US$58 a kilo fuelled by Cyclone Hudah, which tore through Madagascar, the world’s main vanilla supplier, in April 2000, destroying much of its crop.”Prices went berserk,” said Umran Kaggwa, an agricultural commercialisation expert at the Ugandan government’s Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Programme (APEP).Villagers living on less than US$2 a day had added a few vanilla vines to the more traditional pineapples, potatoes and bananas in their small plots and pollinated every golden flower by hand.They then watched the money roll in, buying cars and motorcycles, sent their children to school and improved their homes.Some farmers took second or third wives.As world prices slumped for Uganda’s principal export, coffee, the windfall from the 2003 vanilla harvest brought riches beyond belief for farmers in Ntenjeru, an area of lush valleys near Lake Victoria, 25 kilometres southeast of the capital Kampala.World prices for cured vanilla hit an all-time high of US$400-US$500 per kg last year from about US$15 a decade ago, propelled by a dearth of global supply in the flavouring used in ice cream, cakes, biscuits and drinks.The price rise lured farmers from countries as diverse as Uganda, India, Mexico and Papua New Guinea to start growing vanilla.Rising global production and a surge in synthetic imitations are threatening to sharply reduce vanilla earnings.Madagascar is expecting a big harvest this year and Ugandan vanilla farmers who had planted more vines betting on another lucrative harvest in July are likely to get their fingers burned.While high prices are now out of the question, the insecurity that arrived with their unexpected windfall has not gone away.A villager was beaten to death and his body burned by a crowd in Ntenjeru after he was caught on a vanilla farm.He was one of several alleged vanilla thieves to be killed in Uganda’s wider Mukono district this year.Francis Kiyaga, a vanilla farmer in Ntenjeru’s Kagulu village, paid a private security company about US$120 a month for an armed guard to watch over his 1,5 acres of vines every night.”Some of my neighbours can’t afford that much, so they make do with a guy with a bow and arrows,” he told Reuters.Ugandan officials say this season’s vanilla crop is expected to reach 200 tonnes, almost double last year’s.Despite low earnings, however, farmers are still growing vanilla.The government is also backing vanilla, and a farmer’s education campaign that will begin after the harvest will set up nurseries in every sub-county where the beans are grown.”It’s like any commodity, like coffee, like soya beans, anything,” said Aga Sekalala, managing director of Uganda Vanilla Producers and Processors and Uganda’s top exporter.”Everyone wanted to cash in and in the end the price had to crash, and crash badly.But getting these farmers to understand that is a very big problem.”Another problem for exporters is the strength of the Ugandan shilling, which has climbed to around 1,700 shillings per US dollar from 1,990 shillings in July 2003.As swaying pick-up trucks laden with sacks of raw vanilla unloaded nearby, Sekalala said exporters had loaned farmers about US$200,000 this year, largely to help them meet the costs of guarding their plantations.Most of the money will be lost because of low prices.-Nampa-ReutersAs the beans used in one of the world’s most popular food flavourings are plucked and driven to processors for export, a dramatic plunge in prices has caused tempers to flare.The vanilla price on the international market is currently around US$130 (N$780) per kg (2.2 lb) compared with US$400 in April 2003 .Ugandan farmers are getting about US$4 a kilo for raw vanilla.Last year’s price was around US$58 a kilo fuelled by Cyclone Hudah, which tore through Madagascar, the world’s main vanilla supplier, in April 2000, destroying much of its crop.”Prices went berserk,” said Umran Kaggwa, an agricultural commercialisation expert at the Ugandan government’s Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Programme (APEP).Villagers living on less than US$2 a day had added a few vanilla vines to the more traditional pineapples, potatoes and bananas in their small plots and pollinated every golden flower by hand.They then watched the money roll in, buying cars and motorcycles, sent their children to school and improved their homes.Some farmers took second or third wives.As world prices slumped for Uganda’s principal export, coffee, the windfall from the 2003 vanilla harvest brought riches beyond belief for farmers in Ntenjeru, an area of lush valleys near Lake Victoria, 25 kilometres southeast of the capital Kampala.World prices for cured vanilla hit an all-time high of US$400-US$500 per kg last year from about US$15 a decade ago, propelled by a dearth of global supply in the flavouring used in ice cream, cakes, biscuits and drinks.The price rise lured farmers from countries as diverse as Uganda, India, Mexico and Papua New Guinea to start growing vanilla.Rising global production and a surge in synthetic imitations are threatening to sharply reduce vanilla earnings.Madagascar is expecting a big harvest this year and Ugandan vanilla farmers who had planted more vines betting on another lucrative harvest in July are likely to get their fingers burned.While high prices are now out of the question, the insecurity that arrived with their unexpected windfall has not gone away.A villager was beaten to death and his body burned by a crowd in Ntenjeru after he was caught on a vanilla farm.He was one of several alleged vanilla thieves to be killed in Uganda’s wider Mukono district this year.Francis Kiyaga, a vanilla farmer in Ntenjeru’s Kagulu village, paid a private security company about US$120 a month for an armed guard to watch over his 1,5 acres of vines every night.”Some of my neighbours can’t afford that much, so they make do with a guy with a bow and arrows,” he told Reuters.Ugandan officials say this season’s vanilla crop is expected to reach 200 tonnes, almost double last year’s.Despite low earnings, however, farmers are still growing vanilla.The government is also backing vanilla, and a farmer’s education campaign that will begin after the harvest will set up nurseries in every sub-county where the beans are grown.”It’s like any commodity, like coffee, like soya beans, anything,” said Aga Sekalala, managing director of Uganda Vanilla Producers and Processors and Uganda’s top exporter.”Everyone wanted to cash in and in the end the price had to crash, and crash badly.But getting these farmers to understand that is a very big problem.”Another problem for exporters is the strength of the Ugandan shilling, which has climbed to around 1,700 shillings per US dollar from 1,990 shillings in July 2003.As swaying pick-up trucks laden with sacks of raw vanilla unloaded nearby, Sekalala said exporters had loaned farmers about US$200,000 this year, largely to help them meet the costs of guarding their plantations.Most of the money will be lost because of low prices.-Nampa-Reuters

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