Sri Lanka – a Vanilla Producing Country!

It may be a surprise to many connoisseurs of this cherished spice that Sri Lanka has a small vanilla producing industry. In fact Vanilla Lanka, the vanilla growers association formed in 1997, is comprised of over 2000 vanilla farmers who grow approximately nine metric tonnes of vanilla beans annually. This results in production of about 1.5 metric tonnes of cured vanilla beans.

The association is the sole administrative body representing vanilla growers; it sets the price (in 2013 the price paid to the growers for green beans was Rs 1200 per kg) and it coordinates all commercial transactions between the vanilla growers and the agent.

Green vanilla Harvest

Green vanilla Harvest

The Vanilla Lanka processing centre in Wattegama was recently visited by a team from The Spice Journal. Our visit was hosted by a representative of the P & D Group of companies which is the sole agent for Vanilla Lanka. We first met Mr Thilanka, the group manager of P & D, during the CHOGM exposition held in Colombo.

Mr Thilanka explained that their most important customer is Elephant House, a Sri Lanka ice cream manufacturer, which purchases approximately 6000 kg of cured beans annually, at a price of about Rs10,000 per kg. They also export vanilla beans to Australia and UK.

Wattegama is about one hour drive from central Kandy; on arrival we were welcomed by M B Madugalle, the Chairman of Vanilla Lanka, who explained that the association has more than 2000 active members but many of them grow vanilla as a part time vocation.

Fortunately during our visit we met one farmer, Mr Douglas, who works his small plantation full time with the help of his family.

Vanilla, a member of the Orchid family, is indigenous to Mexico where the flowers are naturally pollinated by small honey bees called “Melapona”. In the 1500’s as the Spanish influence grew in Mexico and Central America the Spaniards took vanilla beans back to Europe where they became a delicacy when mixed with cacao, and it was enjoyed exclusively by the Royals and the rich.

In the ensuing centuries many European and African farmers tried to grow vanilla but they disappointedly learned that there are no natural pollinators of vanilla except the melapona honey bees. Their initial attempts at vanilla farming was to bring along hives of Melapona bees to pollinate the blossoms, unfortunately the small stingless bees soon died whenever they were subjected to forced migration.

Meanwhile, before manual pollination of vanilla blossoms became viable, there were many a ship hold of vanilla beans transported from Mexico to the rest of the world.

It is said that one of the first to accomplish vanilla pollination by hand was a young boy in Mauritius. Nowadays most all vanilla flowers are pollinated by hand, the exception is vanilla which is still grown in its native region.

Back in Wattegama, where vanilla is thought to have grown wild at least since 1836, Mr Madaugalle demonstrated the method of processing vanilla to a couple of spice journalists who were seeing it for the first time.

First the green vanilla beans are washed and put into mesh bags for boiling. (The mesh bag is to enable the person who does the boiling to take the beans all out of the water at the exact same time when the boiling process is completed) The beans are “boiled” in water at 650C for 3 minutes. This process is called killing the beans.

Boiling vanilla-killing

Boiling vanilla beans in mesh bags

Immediately after removing the beans from the water, the “killed beans” are rolled in cotton blankets and packed for 48 hours in a box, tightly packed with blankets. This allows the fermentation process to begin.

When the fermentation process is complete, the blankets with vanilla beans are dried in the sun for two hours every day for 20 days. In case there is no sunshine, mechanical ovens can be used for drying the product. Mr Madugalle explained that there is a 6 to 1 weight loss from green beans to the cured beans.

On the particular day when we visited Vanilla Lanka we saw a healthy yield of green vanilla beans being unloaded from a 3-wheeler (tuk-tuk). As it turned out the tuk-tuk belonged to Mr Douglas, who Mr Madugalle explained is the top farmer in the association. The load of beans was weighed while we watched and found to be 125 kg.

Mr Madugalle also explained the pollination process used in Sri Lanka. He said vanilla flowers grow in bunches but only one flower from a bunch blooms each day, and if the flower isn’t pollinated it will fall off by evening. Accordingly pollination should be done early in the morning,and for pollination to be successful the flower must be pollinated within 12hours of blooming.

Usually only 7 or 8 flowers in a bunch are pollinated, allowing the beans to grow much healthier with space and nutrition. The blossoming season for vanilla in Sri Lanka is during the month of March and Vanilla Lankahas extended an invitation to The Spice Journal to visit again during the pollination to witness this encounter of procreation of a beautiful plant done with the delicate act of a human hand.

Vanilla rolled in cotton blankets

Vanilla rolled in cotton blankets

Vanilla is the 2nd most expensive spice in the world, some of the reason is the delicate and labour intensive cultivation process, and some because of the onerous and time consuming process to make it ready for market. The other major reason is the 6:1 weight loss factor in curing the beans

The major vanilla producing countries are Madagascar, Indonesia, and Mexico; with India, Comoros Islands and Reunion Island steadily increasing their share of world production.

Sri Lanka’s production of about 1.5 tonnes annually may seem a pittance, but considering it provides income to more than 2000 poor farmers and helps put bread on their tables, it is a very important small industry.

cured vanilla

Cured Vanilla

Follow the Spice Journal for a report in March 2014 on pollination of the Wattegama vanilla crops.