Just off the African Coast is the island of Madagascar.


At the end of the 19th century, French colonisers decided to introduce vanilla here.


The fruit of a Mexican orchid, it's one of the most expensive spices in the world.


Soon the North-west of the island was covered with the black gold.


A SELLER: "45-600."


With 2000 tonnes exported annually, Madagascar is today the world's main source of vanilla.

However it remains one of the world's poorest countries.


It's long-term political instability keeps Western investors at bay.



In recent years, the Chinese have seen this as an opportunity to bolster their presence...and impose their methods.



Who are these new farmers ? And how will the vanilla trade transform in their hands ?



In the North-west of Madagascar, the Sava region turned to vanilla farming more than a century ago.



Papa B is one of the 80,000 small growers located in the vanilla-rich region.



PAPA BE « I've already harvested a few pods »


After six months of growth, the precious pods are now ready to be picked.



PAPA BE -« Look at this vine here, that's the first one I planted. So it's the first to be ripe. This is how you should harvest it, just like our grandparents used to »



Papa B keeps a watchful eye on his 5 hectare plot, down to the last pod. But his methods - a source of pride - are being increasingly called into question.



Previously, the planters took their produce to the buyers as and when the pods were ripe, so you sold green vanilla from May to January of the next year. But now there's a fixed date for the harvest and you pick everything in one go. It's a slap in the face of nature...



For 15 years now, the Madagascan authorities have decided on the date of the harvest. The planters only have a week to pick everything.


The government's objective is to formalise and simplify the industry.


PAPA BE - « Come on »


For Papa B, this is sacrilege.

In his eyes, the ripening process cannot be dictated by law.




« It's an art - vanilla requires skill and care, which must be conserved. The vanilla doesn't get its aroma all by itself. »


Bourbon vanilla is known for being the best in the world and Papa B wants to keep it that way.


He learnt his craft from his father, who emigrated from China to Madagascar almost a century ago.


PAPA BE - « My father was Cantonese Chinese. He came to Madagascar in 1920 and he grew vanilla till he died »


Papa B's father was one of the first Chinese to re-locate to the island.


At the end of the 19th century, Joseph Gallieni, French governor of Madagascar, decided to use a Chinese work-force to give the colony an economic boost.


JEAN PHILIPPE DEBLEDES : « When Gallieni created the Madagascan colony, he decided to employ Chinese labourers. Indians were too hard to get, and the English weren't interested. He got them from the tropical part of China, because they were better adapted to the Madagascan climate. These unmarried Chinese workers came voluntarily, they did what they were told, and some died of the work; approximately a fifth. A fifth stayed in Madagascar and the rest went back to China. The 500 who remained became peasant farmers, and married locally. They are the ancestors of the mixed-race Chinese that you can find in big cities like Tana today, or in villages out in the bush. They went from being farmers to selling farm produce, to owning small businesses. They have become completely integrated with Madagascan society. »


66 year-old Papa B is mixed race Chinese-Madagascan, a proud descendant of the island's first generation of Chinese.


PAPA BE - « This is a photo of my dad, in his forties. I sometimes imagine what it was like in China back then, during the foreign occupation. That and the famine are the reasons our parents were forced to leave the country. A great famine struck China. A few decades later, is was them who sent food supplies back to China. »


Papa B's father, Fo Qin Shan, never made a fortune, but he left his land and his house to his son. Like his father before him, Papa B has married a Madagascan woman.


MAMA BE - « Normally, I don't like cooking, because my husband does it - he's Chinese so he's used to it ! »


PAPA BE - « I'm not Chinese... »


MAMA BE - « What do we call you then ? »


PAPA BE - « Madagascan »


MAMA BE « Mixed race...Chinese-Madagascan »


Papa B and Mama B have shared this hut without electricity or running water for 20 years - income from vanilla is too unpredictable to make improvements. Currently, they make an average of 100 euros a month.


PAPA BE - « The growers, we're in the palm of those who have all the money, the owners and the buyers, so we can't ask for too high a price »


Once a year, Papa B makes the 3 hour journey to Andape. At this market, he sells his entire crop to local stockists.


A whole year's income is at stake.


PAPA BE - « Vanilla is like a bank for us growers. It lets us invest in education for our kids or a sack of rice...We're investing in vanilla...So once vanilla is kaput, we're kaput too. »


This year, the buyers are offering just 3 euros per kilo of green vanilla, 10 for dried vanilla...For Papa B this is too low.


PAPA BE « We have to fight, to teach our kids to make quality, otherwise the prices will stay too low and we won't have enough to live. Let's hope the government will help us set a fair price. »


The small growers have been waiting for years for the Madagascan authorities to fix minimum prices. But the truth is that in Madagascar, international demand dictates the market.


50 kilometres (30 miles ?) away is the vanilla capital : Sambava. This is where the growers' produce is exported.


The coastal town has a population of 40,000 and attracts the country's biggest wholesalers.


The French traditionally controlled this market. But in recent years, they have been replaced by new arrivals : Chinese investors who moved here in the 90s.


Cindy is one of them. She is originally Cantonese.


CINDY - « We started with ravioli, and had some success. Little by little we've grown. We started with a little square hut, that became a restaurant, until we reached the point we're at today. »


Now, the Chinese restaurant owners are also vanilla wholesalers.


The restaurant's backyard is entirely dedicated to drying vanilla pods. Cindy and her father have just bought a hundred kilos of vanilla from local stockists.


CAMARADE« Take it all out. Carry it up there ! »


This year, they plan to export 1.5 tonnes to China. The demand in the last 5 years has sky-rocketed, due to a new craze for the spice.


Thanks to this, Cindy and her father can hope to make 60,000 euros this season.


CINDY « You're mad ! Take care with the vanilla ! »


This summer, the rate fixed by the exporters is around 40 euros a kilo. At that price, Cindy can't afford to lose a single pod.


JEAN PHILIPPE DEBLEDES  « The Chinese don't grow the vanilla. They don't harvest the vanilla. Those are jobs for the Madagascans. You only find the Chinese at one stage in the chain - at the import-export level as wholesalers. So you don't need growing skills, only commercial skills: how to arrange a shipment of vanilla, how to get it ready for sale, who to sell it to, and for what price. These people did not come to integrate. They came with their contacts, with a supply chain, and since they work hard and they have a good quality product, they have succeeded. »



« You down there, hurry up or daddy will be mad ! »

« You, go and get me my sunglasses »


Cindy and her father employ around 15 Madagascans.

They earn 1 euro a day, like 80% of the Madagascan population.


Without work contracts, they can be fired without notice.


CINDY - « It's true that I can be harsh when they don't listen to me. I tell them off. If you don't, they don't respect you. That's how you manage workers here. Soon of them answer back ! You get tired of telling them the same things. Not long ago, I fired one. She didn't listen to me or my father. There are limits. I told her : take your salary and leave ! »


CAMARADE « Wrap that, quickly »


The weather has turned : a storm is coming.


CAMARADE - « It's going to rain, look at that sky »


The rain could ruin all the stock.


In the space of a few minutes, the Madagascan workers have to clear it all away.


Their speed has saved thousands of euros.


Balita has worked here for 2 years. But he's still not quite used to the methods of his new employers.


BALITA « We've worked with French people in the past, but now it's only Chinese. He Chinese aren't harsh, they're just demanding. They have a different mentality. They don't have the same character, they express themselves in a strange way. I don't like working here at all. »


For her part, Cindy has trouble understanding the Madagascans.


CINDY « Here, no-one rushes. Look how my workers are - the girls talking, relaxed...In China, you keep your mouth shut and your hands moving ! But they joke, they take their time over lunch...When I see how my cousins work in China, it's no joke, not like here... »


At the end of the day, while the workers fight over the bread, Cindy starts the frisking.


A single pod is the equivalent of a day's work for the Madagascans : a tempting prospect, for some.


JOURNALIST - Do you do this every day ?


Cindy - Yes.


JOURNALIST - Are there thefts


CINDY - Yes, sometimes.


JOURNALIST - Big bags ?


CINDY - No just little, but a little becomes a lot over time.


In Sambava, the authoritarian methods of the Chinese have separated the communities. 3 years since arriving, Cindy hasn't formed ties with Madagascans.


The Sava region is celebrating.

For the first time since his election, the new President of Madagascar is making a visit to the vanilla capital.


Hery Rajaonarimampianina has worked hard to forge links with China. Their vital investment has restored life to an economy reeling from the 2009 military coup.


At the time, the EU suspended subsidies on Madagascan vanilla. This left Madagascar to court Chinese businessmen offering tax-free exports and property in exchange for their investment in the country.


JEAN PHILIPPE DEBLEDES  : « There's a big difference between Chinese policy and French policy when it comes to access to primary resources. France practices conditional development: I help you if you introduce democracy - development and democracy hand in hand. So where you invest, you develop... The Chinese don't practice this at all. For them it's just business: you have something I want, here's my money, do what you want. I don't care if you're democratic, or authoritarian, or came into power illegally, or communist, or not - what I'm interested in is your raw materials. »


Vanilla makes up 35% of Madagascan exports: 60 million euros in revenue every year.


The president's speech is highly anticipated in the vanilla capital. It will provide a roadmap for the year ahead.


PRESIDENT HERY Rajaonarimampianina : « Vanilla is the life-force of the region and of Madagascar. Be careful not to pick green vanilla before it is ripe. By careful to not to use vacuum packaging. We can't increase the price, because first the quality must be there - the international market decides. »


No mention of the Chinese partnership is made in the 2-hour speech.

So far it hasn't improved the quality or the price of vanilla.


JOURNALIST : What do you think about your new Chinese partnership ?


Hery Rajaonarimampianina "Today, we have put in place a structure for the production of vanilla in Madagascar, for perfecting the production. We have to organise better to improve the quality of vanilla, so that it retains its position in the world : number one. Our markets are completely open, and that means China too."


In 5 years, vanilla exports to China have already increased 20-fold. However, despite the assurances made in the presidential speech, quality has become secondary.


In order to facilitate speculation on prices, the Chinese wholesalers have introduced vacuum packaging, criticised in the president's speech.


Cindy and her family often use this technique to keep stock until prices are high.


CINDY « This vanilla is left over from last year. Last year the vanilla wasn't terrible. This is a little mouldy, so we're in process of treating it. »
« This is poor quality, there are some big stores that will buy it »


Following in the footsteps of the Chinese wholesalers, vacuum packaging has become widespread here.


These Madagascans have come to use Cindy's machine.


BUYER: Prices are low at the moment, we are going to wait a few months for the prices to go up before selling - that's what everybody has been doing to last 2-4 years


The sellers have another trick up their sleeve.


Most don't wait until the vanilla is dry before vacuum packaging. As a result, it weighs more, fetching a higher price.


Favouring quantity over quality only benefits the middle men.


The small farmers are worst hit by these new methods.

Papa B and his neighbours have seen their revenues cut in half in the last 10 years.


In the villages, teamwork has prevailed.

To help his neighbours, Papa B has dug wells in the community.

In the country, 1 in 2 do not have access to drinking water.


PAPA BE - « I've made around 10 wells in the area...Look, they're queuing »


But this year, solidarity won't be enough to feed Papa B's family.


PAPA BE - « My petrol lamp »


To make ends meet, he's just opened a little shop.


Papa Be : We've still got vanilla, but you have to have other sources of income...It's difficult.


Greengrocer, shop-owner and canteen chef, the vanilla grower has added some strings to his bow.

But he's worried about the future of the region.


PAPA BE : It's a sector that everybody tries to make money off, but you must realise that in Madagascar, especially in Sava, if vanilla dies, a whole generation will have serious economic problems...that is for sure.


When I see all the children going to school, walking the streets...I ask myself : where will their lives lead ? The parents scrape a the kids, what will be done with them ? How will they live ?


6AM : Papa B and his wife take to the road.


PAPA BE -« This way »


Once a month, they visit the temple, 2 hours away on foot. Since finding his faith, 20 years ago, Papa B never misses a service.


Papa B : All my brothers and sisters were baptised except me, because I asked the priest too many questions. But when I got married, I took my wife's faith - she's protestant and I followed. »


Papa B : It helped me a lot with finding my inner peace


After 10km (6 miles) of walking, Papa B and his wife arrive at the temple.

300 villagers are already gathered around the pastor.


PASTOR : Are children will succeed us, we must bring them up well and take care of them. The same goes for the country. They are our future and we put God's trust in them ; a nation without children to praise God is extremely sad.


Co-operation and faith maintain a semblance of life in the community.



You, beloved father, loved by your child

May your child, who is our elder enlighten us

You, beloved father, loved by your child,

Take us, we are here by your will and remain close to you


How much longer can vanilla bring wealth to this corner of Madagascar?

In Southern China, as well as in Angola, entrepreneurs are already starting to plant the much desired orchid.

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

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