STANDING in the middle of her two-hectare vanilla plantation, Agnes Kokutangaza (57), a resident of Missenyi District's Kilimilile village recounts how the crop has changed her life.
A few years ago she was living in a small mud house, but life has changed for the better after switching to vanilla production. Last season he earned about 8m/- from vanilla sales. She is among farmers who formed an Agricultural and Marketing Cooperative Society (AMCOS).
About 5,332 active farmers in Kagera region engage in vanilla production. For many decades farmers in Kagera region depended on a single cash crop-coffee. However, the crop has been devastated by the coffee wilt disease (CWD), while most of the coffee trees are over 60 years old and do not yield much.
Lack of inputs and poor management has also aggravated the problem. Vanilla, introduced as an alternative cash crop to the traditional coffee has proved to be a game changer. The government had intervened to help out coffee farmers by identifying farmer-oriented groups and gave them financial support.
Dr Mutahyoba Baisi from the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM), recently conducted research on behalf of the Agricultural Council of Tanzania (ACT) in Muleba and Bukoba districts. The study revealed that challenges facing vanilla include lack of a by-law to protect the crop, skilled extension officers with background on vanilla, limited technology and lack of a coordination mechanism.
Kagera region has conducive weather suitable for production of various crops including cotton, tea, tobacco, cassava, maize, pepper, mushrooms and sunflower. The General Manager of Maendeleo ya Wakulima ( Mayawa), Charles Kamando is confident that with proper management, a farmer could maintain at least 20 vanilla trees enabling him/her to pocket at least 35m/- a year.
A well maintained vanilla tree has potential to produce between 5-12 kilogrammes of green beans. The NGO has steadily progressed extending its services in Muleba, Bukoba Urban, Misenyi, Bukoba Rural, Karagwe and Kyerwa Districts. Vanilla farmer-groups increased from 202 during 2014 to 274 last year.
Since 2011/2012 Mayawa expanded its services by introducing other cash crops including pepper, rosella (for wine and juice) and mushrooms. The aim was to uplift the farmers economically and to increase the nutritious status. Vanilla farmers earned close to 2.0bn/- from vanilla exports between 2006 and 2015.
During 2006 crop season Mayawa exported 14.3 tonnes of cured vanilla earning 39.7m/-, while during 2007 about 32.1 tonnes were exported earning the farmers 49.5m/-. During 2008 about 47.1 tonnes were exported fetching 128.8m/-.
During 2009 crop season 75.6 tonnes were exported fetching 244.6m/- while during 2010 about 102.3 tonnes were exported enabling the farmers to get 319m/-. During 2011 Mayawa exported 70.8 tonnes fetching 229.4m/- while during 2012 about 35.8 tonnes were sold fetching 147.9m/-.
During 2013 some 39.2 tonnes were sold through export fetching 215.4m/, in 2014 some 27.5 tonnes were exported enabling farmers to get 213.5m/- while during 2015 some 33.9 tonnes of cured vanilla were exported fetching 406.8m/-. Vanilla produced in Kagera region was the best in the world.
However, due to increased smuggling, the vanillin content dropped from 3.3 per cent during 2010 to 2.5 per cent during 2015, warning that if urgent action was not taken the quality would drop further. Private companies and individuals wishing to invest in vanilla business must invest in extension services by training the farmers and providing them necessary inputs and fertilizers.
Vanilla is in big demand in several foreign markets including Europe, Middle East, China, Australia and the US. Vanilla is a sought after product, usually the second most expensive spice in the world. This meal-flavoring plant ranks as the number two most pricey of all spices. Only saffron is higher-priced.
Its uses include flavoring bakery products, making perfumes and in aromatherapy. The spice comes from the bean fruit in dried form. The plant originated in Mexico where legend has it that a goddess intermarried with a human and where they died the plant grew.
Away from myth, colonialists first brought the plant to Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius and Madagascar in 1819. From here, the plant might have spread to neighbouring countries including Tanzania. This spice has small margins of minerals that constitute the bulk of its nutrients.
Consumption of vanilla provides the body with at least 4 per cent of potassium, important for balancing blood electrolytes. The volume of magnesium is 3 per cent per serving, essential for strengthening the bones. The calcium concentration for strengthening teeth enamel is 1 per cent.
With virtually no fat, vanilla gives the body energy courtesy of its 4 per cent of the daily value of carbohydrates. Its total calories count is 288.
Kagera Regional Commissioner (RC), Brigadier General Marco Gaguti, explained that as a nation, when we talk about industrial economy, we have to put in place strategies to uplift the farmers from poverty also calling for intensive investments as the region had abundant land for large scale investments in agriculture.