(Original article written by Genory Vanz Alfasain/Voice of the Youth Network as published online at Philippine Information Agency’s official website, March 31, 2023)
During their stopover on the island of Madagascar in 2019, Melvin Awid, a former maritime officer, had an epiphany when he met a stevedore and introduced him to the vanilla plant.
"The stevedore did not take a bath and utilized the oil from vanilla pod to conceal his foul odor," Awid recounted.
The stevedore answered Awid's inquiry and imparted his knowledge of vanilla. From that moment, Awid realized the huge potential if he would pursue vanilla farming back in his hometown in Maitum, Sarangani Province.
He gave up a bright future in the maritime sector to seek a career in vanilla farming. He had no intention of remaining on the ship any longer. In Sarangani, he is eager to create a network of independent farmers with access to the market.
“I want both self and career growth. I believe that vanilla farming can give this fulfillment.”
He looked for vanilla suppliers from the Philippines and abroad. Fortunately, he imported his first 25 vanilla plants from Malaysia and propagated them.
Despite its lucrative potential, being the second most expensive spice after saffron, Awid witnessed poverty in Madagascar because of the presence of cartels and middlemen. He does not want it to happen in his hometown province.
The experience of joining the Young Farmers Challenge
Awid identified himself as a "self-taught" farmer. He learns by watching YouTube videos and conducting research, networking with other farmers, and participating in farmer competitions to put his agri-business ideas to the test.
Awid was one of the regional winners of the Young Farmers Challenge (YFC) – a competitive financial grant assistance program under the Department of Agriculture (DA), intended for the youth who will engage in new agri-fishery enterprises. These YFC grantees received additional funds from the DA region 12 worth PhP 150,000 to further enhance their chosen agri-fishery-based enterprises.
The goal is to gather young people to promote agriculture and to create an avenue for them to develop their interest in agribusiness. The program helps capacitate them by giving appropriate training and skills needed.
Unfortunately, Awid did not advance in the national category. Nonetheless, that did not deter him from continuing on his vanilla farming mission.
“Joining YFC, I realized that losing was not the end of it. We should not be discouraged by what happened. We should be motivated to pursue vanilla farming, especially in Sarangani Province,” he stated.
"We can make Sarangani the vanilla capital of the Philippines if we work hard to promote it throughout the province and support our farmers. Sarangani will set the industry standard for the vanilla industry in the country.”
The potential of vanilla farming
Madagascar was the world's greatest vanilla-producing country in 2016, with an output of 2,926 tons of vanilla, followed by Indonesia at 2,304 tons, demonstrating an expanding trend in vanilla production over much of Asia and Africa.
Vanilla was initially native to the forested highlands of Mexico. It was found in other tropical areas of the globe after its transport to European colonies in Africa and Asia in the sixteenth century by explorers, botanists, priests, and colonial administrators.
Natural vanilla flavoring is a product of the fruity pods of the vanilla vine, a tropical plant of the genus vanilla of the orchid family (Orchidaceae). There are many varieties – vanilla planifolia, vanilla pompona, and vanilla tahitinesis being the most common. Awid uses vanilla planifolia for both his demo and open space farm in Barangay Kalaneg.
“Some sellers would claim that they have real vanilla plants. If you would examine it, they are selling wild orchids from the forest that only bear flowers, not pods,” Awid said.
“Most of the vanilla products in the market are synthetic vanilla. I want to advocate authentic vanilla to the consumers,” he added.
Awid acknowledges that the local government, as well as the Department of Agriculture, have yet to recognize the potential of vanilla production. Vanilla, for example, is regarded as a "new crop" in Sarangani. They have no clue about its technicalities and lack concrete assistance.
"I understand that this crop is new to the province. Please do not be hesitant to enter this industry. I am eager to offer my expertise.”
Platform for awareness
Awid established his UF Vanilla Farm in Barangay Kalaneg, Maitum. He has 30 square meters demo farm in his residential compound that is open to the public. While he has an open-space farm in the forested part of his barangay.
UF Vanilla Farm - a vanilla urban farming setup at Brgy Kalaneg, Maitum, Sarangani Province
On December 8, 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he established Urban Farms PH, an online portal dedicated to the promotion of local agricultural products. He is the operations and sales manager.
"I was inspired to build such a platform after witnessing our farmers' struggles during the pandemic. They could not sell their agricultural products because they could not cross borders or did not have a permit to travel," Awid explained.
Melvin's platform intends to eliminate the presence of traders or middlemen in his community. He wants to promote awareness about vanilla production and empower our farmers and producers by connecting them to the market directly.
“We are pro-farmers and into fair trading. If we venture into this industry, we follow the global market price. As an entity, we represent the farmers and educate them about the vanilla industry. The goal is to export it and local consumers will enjoy the authentic vanilla,” he said.
Awid intends to sell value-added vanilla products in addition to raw vanilla pods. They will also venture into essential oils. Awid considers studying the vanilla value chain to fully understand the industry.
"Slowly, more people are becoming interested in vanilla cultivation. If you are interested in agriculture, I would recommend that you practice quality farming. I am happy to share my best practices." (Genory Vanz Alfasain/Voice of the Youth Network)