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Vanilla Slice

27 mins 55 secs







ABC Ultimo Centre

700 Harris Street Ultimo

NSW 2007 Australia


GPO Box 9994


NSW 2001 Australia

Phone: :61 419 231 533


e-mail :


Behind our craving for vanilla-flavoured ice cream, cakes and chocolate, or for vanilla-scented perfumes, there’s a rattling tale of fast money, skulduggery and the precarious fate of an iconic animal.

A few years ago, the humble vanilla bean sold for $80 a kilo. Now it’s $800. In vividly beautiful, dirt-poor Madagascar, supplier of most of the world’s vanilla, that means good times roll.

Vanilla is the best, vanilla is the crazy money. No income better in Madagascar - and I think the world! – Yockno, who is swapping tour guiding for vanilla farming.

By day, Prisco is a hustler who buys and sells vanilla in the street. By night, in a seedy bar, he sings of his love for the bean, and what it can get him…

Girl, come and weigh the vanilla, there’s enough for whatever you want! – Prisco’s song lyric

Prisco is a bit player in a vast vanilla ecosystem. In the vanilla hub of Sambava, brokers plough money into shiny multi-story mansions.  In big export warehouses, women sort their way through hillocks of beans. They’re frisked before they go home, just in case they’ve filched any. 

In rural areas at harvest time, small farmers guard their crops overnight from roaming thieves. If the farmers catch them, justice is swift and sometimes deadly. 

They can do crazy things to them – Yockno, tour guide and vanilla farmer

Long before the tense harvest, there’s an operation that demands the utmost delicacy. Each vanilla flower must be hand-pollinated – a trick invented by a 12-year-old slave boy in the 1840s. Using a tiny thorn, Yockno shows reporter Adam Harvey how it’s done.

So what I do is push this tongue up…. 

It’s all precision – and timing. Each flower is ready for pollination for only one morning each year.

…. and I press softly the male to the female.  So now it’s done.

Vanilla is surely sweet for Madagascar’s people, but not for its most celebrated characters – the exquisite lemurs popularised by the Madagascar movie. High vanilla prices are putting pressure on the lemurs’ habitat as forest is illegally cut to grow the beans.

But as Harvey and the Foreign Correspondent team trek deep into the jungle, they discover – to their delight – that lemurs are hanging on defiantly. Our cameras capture them – bamboo lemurs, white-headed lemurs and critically endangered silky sifakas, one of the world’s rarest mammals – in all their glory. 



Episode teaser. Mountain/lemur in tree

GFX: foreign correspondent




ADAM HARVEY: They’re the much-loved faces of Madagascar.


Harvey watching lemurs in tree

“Father, mother and son.  Amazing”.


Lemurs in tree

Their jungle homes now under pressure as we crave a flavour.  Vanilla! 


Kids with vanilla ice creams



Vanilla bean montage.. Packing/harvesting

ADAM HARVEY:  On this Indian Ocean island, it’s vanilla bean boom time and everyone wants their slice.


Vanilla vine

YOCKNO: “Vanilla is the best.



No income better than vanilla in Madagascar. Anything in the world”.


Drone over town



Man sniffs vanilla

ADAM HARVEY:  There’s a killing to be made.


Vanilla beans in carton

“Fifty-fold increase in price”.



Adam with Yohan

You can understand there is vanilla and vanilla”.



ADAM HARVEY: Tonight, we take a wild journey through Madagascar to discover there’s nothing bland about vanilla.





GFX:  Foreign Correspondent



Night time. Sambava town.
GFX: Sambava, Madagascar



GFX:  Vanilla Slice



Adam in bar watching Prisco and band GFX:  Reporter Adam Harvey




ADAM HARVEY:  In the vanilla capital of the world, it’s party time. 



In this bar in the north Madagascar town of Sambava, tonight’s drawcard is a young local singer, Prisco A L’Appareil. Prisco’s music celebrates the business that’s transforming one of the poorest places on earth:  the white-hot vanilla trade.


Prisco sings

SONG LYRICS: “To plant vanilla, there’s no need for special land.  No need for special time or month or year.  Harvest in July”.


Yockno dancing

ADAM HARVEY:  In the crowd are some of the people riding the vanilla boom.  Like sought-after local tour guide, Yockno. 


Hustlers at bar

And tables full of vanilla hustlers.  They’re middlemen who trade the crop in the streets of Sambava.  They call themselves Ass Cova.  This song’s about them.



Crowd dance to song about Ass Cova

SONG LYRICS: “Don’t criticise us! Association Cova!  We’re not stealing anything!  Association Cova”.


Drone shot over Sambava

[Song continues]


Vanilla being sold on streets

ADAM HARVEY:  In a nation where jobs are scarce and work often backbreaking, these are good times for the vanilla hustlers of Madagascar.  Strong demand and short supply have sent prices through the roof. Just a few years ago one kilogram of processed vanilla was worth $80. Now it’s $800. That’s more expensive than silver. A savvy hustler can make a fortune just by taking a cut of each deal - a vanilla slice. 


Adam walks with Yockno around town

Yockno, the tour guide, is showing me around vanilla city. There’s so much at stake here, our attention makes some of the traders nervous.


Adam on street, to camera

“So we wanted to talk to some middle men, people who buy the vanilla and sell it to others further along the chain, but we’ve been told that we can’t talk to these dealers on the street, we have to speak to the spokesman for the association, so we’re just trying to do that now”.


Man shows bundles of vanilla

Permission granted. 

[on the street] “Can he show us the vanilla that he’s trading?

YOCKNO: “Right now there is no… none of the best quality”.


YOCKNO: “But he’s just showing us the ketch… so the lowest quality of the vanilla is called ketch”.


YOCKNO: “Yes”.


Adam smells vanilla beans

ADAM HARVEY: “It still smells pretty good.  Oh… that’s better.  That was better”.

YOCKNO: “Yes it’s not yet… not yet dry enough”.


YOCKNO: “It still needs… also needs to do another process”.


Hustlers and vanilla beans



Prisco with vanilla beans

ADAM HARVEY: Everyone wants a piece of the action.  Even the hottest singer in town.  For Prisco, it’s pretty much the only way to make his music dreams possible.



PRISCO A L’APPAREIL: “Before I started singing… I was working with vanilla.  So whatever money I get from the vanilla allows me to make a song.  Music and vanilla”.


Drone shot over Sambava






Various shot of people selling things/Working

ADAM HARVEY:  There aren’t many ways to make a decent living in Madagascar, people do anything they can to get by.  They wash old jars and bottles to sell, they pull huge loads by hand and whole families sleep on the street. But the vanilla boom means that, finally, some serious cash is being earned and spent. 


Adam and Yockno walk down busy street

[walking down the street] “It’s crazy busy.  Is it always like this? 

YOCKNO: “Ah yeah, yeah.  It’s actually because of the vanilla, people have lots of money and they buy more tuk tuk and they buy more taxis and then they were working on it.



ADAM HARVEY: “That’s amazing.  Like it feels like market day, but this is every day”.

YOCKNO: “Yeah, yeah it’s always, it’s always like market day”.


Adam on street to camera

ADAM HARVEY: “One thing you notice walking up vanilla street is that there’s a lot of flash motorbikes and they look pretty new and I think that’s what people are spending their middle man money on”.







Motorbikes/Adam and Yockno talking on street

 “It seems to me that the street hustlers, they are not saving their money, they are spending it now”.

YOCKNO: “Yeah, yeah, they’re like spending it now because they don’t really know how to save money and how to keep it, so if they’ve got money so they directly want to buy whatever they want”.


Drone shot. Tony's mansion

ADAM HARVEY:  The next rung on the vanilla ladder means not having to hustle on the streets, your customers come to you.  And that’s how it works for the owner of this vanilla mansion.


Adam and Yockno with Tony in  mansion

This is the home of big-time middle man, Tony.  He grew up on this street.  Now, he towers above it.



“So Tony from here can you, can you see how Sambava has changed because of vanilla?”



YOCKNO: [translates] “All right yes, it’s, he say that it’s a very, very big change in the level of the town.  I mean when the vanilla was the low price, the building there was not yet there.  So all of the building like high, that we saw right now, is because of vanilla”.

ADAM HARVEY: “Right.  And they’re all people like you, like middle men traders who are making the money?”





YOCKNO: [translates] “It depends on your behaviour, it depends on your skill how to work and how to manage your money”.


Tony eats while man washes his car

ADAM HARVEY:  With an appetite for life and for business, Tony’s street hustling days are over, and these days it’s the help who takes care of his prized possessions.





Driving to Yockno's village

ADAM HARVEY: We’re heading into the hills outside Sambava to get to the source of all this vanilla.  Desperately poor, rough-hewn huts with no mains electricity, running water or sewerage, but incredibly beautiful. 





Men with vanilla beans

ADAM HARVEY: Here in Madagascar’s hinterland the bean is everywhere, even at roadside cafes, hustlers are looking to offload their latest trade. 


Adam and Yockno walk

Yockno’s invited us to his village to meet some vanilla farmers.


Yockno introduces family and hugs daughter

He hasn’t been home for a while.  And he’s very pleased to see his 2-year-old daughter. [hugs and kisses]



YOCKNO: “She’s my little Hannah”.


Villagers sell lychees

ADAM HARVEY: Life in this river village is slow.  Yockno’s relatives make money selling lychees to bus passengers for a few cents a time. 


Wedding cars pass through village

Today’s a bigger day than most.  There’s a wedding in a neighbouring village.


Yockno shows home

Yockno’s a striver.  He’s hustled vanilla and driven taxis in Sambava and his command of French and English means he’s in demand to lead tourists into the nearby national park, Marojejy. 



It’s allowed him to build his own home, but it’s hard to be away from his family.

YOCKNO: “Because my work is depends on the travelling, I have to go and then yeah…


Yockno and Adam in house. Shots of house interior

I go to Marojejy for example, but when I go to Marojejy which is for tourist maximum four or five days”.

ADAM HARVEY:  Yockno is being pulled back to the village by family and by vanilla.



YOCKNO: “I might say I’m jealous you know?  Because everyone here is planting vanilla and you know in Sava region vanilla is… the crazy money you know and then why not, I am from the village so I have to move back here”.

ADAM HARVEY: “Do you have land?  You can plant vanilla?”

YOCKNO: “Yes, I have land.  I mean it’s not my own land, but my parents give it to me because right now I couldn’t buy land, yeah, but I have it now”.


ADAM HARVEY: “Let’s go have a look at your field”.



YOCKNO: “Yes, of course we can do.  I will show it to you”.


Crossing river in canoe



Men working on vanilla crop

ADAM HARVEY:  Growing vanilla is a blend of hard graft and the lightest of touches. 

YOCKNO: “This is vanilla vine. 


Yockno shows vanilla vine

We cut it and then we’ll make it round, which is to make easy like a transport system”.

ADAM HARVEY: “So you can replant a vine?”

YOCKNO: “Yes”.

ADAM HARVEY: “Once it’s cut”.


Yockno sharpening the machete

For a vanilla orchid to transform into a bean, it must be pollinated by hand. Each flower is ready for pollination for just a few hours each year.  And for this orchid, today is the day. 


Yockno shows pollination technique

YOCKNO: “So how to do it as well, so this is orange thorn.  We use this because the orange thorn is more soft so it doesn’t scratch either parts of the flower. So the way to do it, the flower of the vanilla there is a cover.  This is called belly.  So we push the belly down, so now we can see the real flower.  But for the vanilla flower there is a male here, up here and the female is down here, you know?  But there is the tongue which is evolved the contact from the male to the female.  That’s why it has to be hand pollinated and hand being”.



ADAM HARVEY: The vanilla orchid originally comes from Mexico, where it’s pollinated by a native bee.



YOCKNO: “The green one is the vanilla pod”.

ADAM HARVEY:  The farmer’s technique was invented by a 12-year-old slave boy, Edmond Albius, in the 1840’s, and is still being used today.

YOCKNO:  But the goal is the male will have the contact with the female, but right now he cannot because it’s avoided by this tongue.  So what I do is I push this tongue up and then I press softly the male to the female.  Now it’s done”.


Adam and Yockno with vanilla vine

ADAM HARVEY: “With this flower you only have one day to do it, right?”

YOCKNO: “Only one day”.

ADAM HARVEY: “Only today?”

YOCKNO: “Only one day, and only today and the best way to pollinate it is morning before twelve o’clock.  After twelve o’clock the flower starts to be sad, which is not really good”.





ADAM HARVEY: “Yeah not as sad as the farmer who doesn’t pollinate it though in time”.

YOCKNO: [laughing] “Yeah”.


Drone shot over Yohan's export business buildings

ADAM HARVEY: It’ll take four years for Yockno’s vanilla vines to start producing pods.  When they’re ready, he’ll want to skip the hustlers and sell directly to a place like this.  





Women bundle up vanilla beans



Adam with Yohan in warehouse

ADAM HARVEY:  “Wow… smells amazing… it smells like vanilla I suppose”.



YOHAN LAJOUX: “Now you are in the warehouse… Second step and we are now measuring the vanilla.”

HARVEY:  Yohan Lajoux works alongside Daniel Goltran, who owns this export business with his wife, the third generation of her family to grow vanilla.  It’s a big, lucrative operation driven by the appetite for natural vanilla in everything from ice creams to perfume.





Woman bundles vanilla

YOHAN LAJOUX: “The story of the vanilla from just last year is amazing because the price from the



Yohan, Daniel, Adam in warehouse

green vanilla increased from $1 to $50. So you can imagine…”

ADAM HARVEY: “A fifty-fold increase in price”.


ADAM HARVEY: “So what is this worth, do you think?


CU vanilla beans

YOHAN LAJOUX: “The cost price is around $200… $150…”

ADAM HARVEY: “$150… US dollars”.


ADAM HARVEY: “Amazing. 


Adam shows Yohan vanilla bean from hustler

It looks smaller for a start”.

I show Yohan a bunch of vanilla I bought earlier from a street hustler. 

YOHAN LAJOUX: “No you can understand there is vanilla and vanilla. It’s absolutely not the same. 



This vanilla is just from… looks like green vanilla, a green bean.  But it’s not dry. If you want to get a good product, this takes around four, five, six months preparation.  This is only one week.  They just put in the water to get the brown colour and then dry it for two days in the sun and then that’s it.  This needs around three month’s drying”.


Women in warehouse processing vanilla




ADAM HARVEY: There’s a lot of vanilla in this warehouse which provides lots of employment to people in the area.  Measuring, counting and packing.  Even though it might look like they’ve had a bumper crop, the harvest was poor this year”.


Yohan interview

YOHAN LAJOUX: “Climate is changing and we have difficulties to have a lot of vanilla like before”.


Workers in warehouse




ADAM HARVEY: Demand for good vanilla keeps growing which is driving the prices up for everyone – from exporter to the consumer.



“Daniel this is all good for business, right?  The high prices are terrific for you?”


Daniel interview

DANIEL GOLTRAN: “It’s not great, because we use our own money.  Because prices go up each year, instead of growing our business we can only produce the same quantity of vanilla. You need to invest more money to get the same amount of vanilla. 


Workers box vanilla

It’s a bit like poker.  We invest.  We buy.  But we don’t know what the price of vanilla will be”.

ADAM HARVEY:  Even so, times are good and they can see the benefits for local people.



Daniel and Yohan

DANIEL GOLTRAN: “We’ve had farmers buying solar panels and cars.  Building proper houses.  They couldn’t do any of this if prices hadn’t gone up”. 



YOHAN LAJOUX: “There are people here can win the salary of their whole life in one year.  Most of all the farmers are like this.  Yeah, yeah in one year they buy for fifty, 50 years of working”.


Worker roll call and women being searched for beans




ADAM HARVEY:  There’s a lot of money at stake for this business.  Their workers are under constant surveillance throughout the day.  When it’s time to pack up, there’s a roll call and every worker is checked to make sure they haven’t pocketed any beans.


Night patrol shots




ADAM HARVEY: With each vine holding up to a kilogram of vanilla pods, crime can pay handsomely and theft is a big problem.  Police stations are often few and far between, so villagers organise their own protection with roadblocks like this.






For three months before harvest, farmers will take turns to sleep with the crop, but even so it might not be enough.  Sometimes the consequences can be fatal.  Over the last year or so, farmers have killed vanilla thieves trying to steal their harvest.


Adam and Yockno among vanilla vines

“Have people stolen from these crops?”

YOCKNO: “Yes, yes”.



ADAM HARVEY: “People put so much time and effort into it and so much of their own energy and money that when they catch a thief there must be big anger?”

YOCKNO: “Oh yeah, very, very, very angry.



It has to be like two ways.  Maybe they were sent to the police or gendarmes and then bring him to in jail, directly. Otherwise the people, the owner of the vanilla getting aggressive with the theft, which mean they can do crazy things to them”.


Drone shot. River

ADAM HARVEY:  Theft is such an issue, farmers often pick their crop early to beat the thieves before the vanilla has matured.


GVs Village.

It means a lot of the vanilla that hits the market isn’t export quality, another reason why prices of the best beans are soaring.







Adam walks with Symrise personnel

ADAM HARVEY:   To try and ensure quality and supply, some of the world’s largest producers of flavours and fragrance are getting involved.


Symrise personnel with vanilla farmers

Workers from multinational manufacturer, Symrise, are trying to convince farmers not to harvest too early.



MIMI RAVAROSON: “We give them some funds to allow them


Mimi interview

to organise themselves, all the men in the villages, to do some round during the night, so the farmers don’t need to stay all along the night in their plot. And it decreased the theft actually.  We have good results like this year.  The quality will be good this year because most of the farmers wait for the full maturity of the vanilla before harvesting it”.


Adam and Mimi with Renee among vanilla vines

ADAM HARVEY:  This farmer’s crop has been robbed four times. 



“Is it worth it Renee, all this trouble?  Sleeping with your crops, guarding it from thieves. Would it not be easier to grow… I don’t know… pineapples?”



RENEE: “Yes, I’m still doing it.  Yes, it’s worth it.  As long as the price is good I’ll take the risk and continue with vanilla”.




Drone shots – village, crops

ADAM HARVEY:  In this country where so many people live hand-to-mouth, even the steepest hills are cultivated – for rice, bananas, lychees and increasingly, for vanilla. 


Land clearing

This is putting immense pressure on the remaining forest, which in turn is threatening the survival of much of Madagascar’s critically endangered wildlife.


Adam walks with Yoncko along track

“There are still some untouched parts of Madagascar but you have to make a real effort to go and see them, which is why we’re taking a two-day trek up there into the Marojejy national park, where hopefully, we’ll see one of the other things that Madagascar is famous for, apart from vanilla, and that’s the lemur.



ADAM HARVEY: About 90 per cent of Madagascar’s reptiles, plants and mammals exist nowhere else on earth. Much of that biodiversity is at risk.


Adam walks with Yoncko along track

Lemurs are among the most endangered primate group in the world, largely due to habitat loss.


Adam and Yoncko look at animals



Adam to camera

ADAM HARVEY:  Well, that was really hard. We came up 700 metres over five hours. About 12 kilometres. It’s extremely beautiful here but after that I really hope we find some lemurs…



Well the climb has paid off.


Adam to camera

A family of lemurs came through our camp at 5 o’clock this morning, when we were asleep. And we sent a guide down to follow them. We’re down here, about 500 metres away, and there’s a family of three lemurs in the tree just up there. I can see two of them now. Father, mother and a son. Amazing. It's made the climb worth it.


Lemurs in trees




ADAM HARVEY:  We’re looking at silky sifakas. They’re one of the rarest mammals in the world – there are now believed to be fewer than 250 in the wild. This is the only place on earth you’ll see them. They cling precariously to the last remaining patch of forest in the heart of vanilla country.  Along the way we’re also lucky enough to see bamboo lemurs and white-headed lemurs.   



Internationally and locally a lot of work is being done to try and secure the best future for Madagascar’s people and its rare plants and animals.  But it’s hard to make people care when life is so tough and vanilla prices are riding so high.


Drone shot over beach/Beach party




ADAM HARVEY:  Sunday night in vanilla city and the weekly beach party is in full swing. It’s pouring rain but nobody here’s bothered. 




For the moment, they’ve got money in their pockets, but the vanilla price has stalled and crashed before and it will happen again, when supply inevitably catches up with demand, a lot of the people riding the boom will be in trouble.  But that’s tomorrow’s problem. 





Yockno dancing at beach party

ADAM HARVEY:   And for our tour guide Yockno with a field full of vanilla vines and dreams of a much bigger future, life is good.

YOCKNO: “Yeah because tour guide is not too bad, but vanilla is the best.  No income better than vanilla in Madagascar and I think in the world”.


Credits over shot of beach

Adam Harvey

Bronwen Reed

Greg Nelson

Garth Thomas

Executive producer
Matthew Carney

© ABC 2019


Out point




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