By Stephen Nuwagira
Apollo Bigirwa is a frustrated man. The vanilla farmer’s frustration stems from the loss occasioned by the big reduction in vanilla prices over the past two seasons.
After the “hugely disappointing rates” recorded last vanilla harvest season, the farmer was optimistic prices would recover this season. Bigirwa says he has invested a lot of money in vanilla growing over the past three years, which he is yet to recoup.
The farmer from Nyamuswiga, Kashangura in Kagongo Division, Ibanda Municipality, in Ibanda District, was however in for a rude shock as prices dropped further this harvest.
“I have so far sold 100 kilogrammes of vanilla at sh3,000 each, earning sh300,000. This compares to sh5,000 per kilo last season,” he says.
High production costs
Bigirwa adds, “This money is too little because the cost of production for the crop is high.”
Annet Byamukama, another farmer from Mishangi, Nyakatookye in Kagongo Division, Ibanda Municipality, adds that looking after vanilla involves a lot of activities and costs. These include hiring pollinators during the flowering stage, and guards to protect the pods against thieves.
According to the farmers, one pays up to sh10,000 per casual worker each day to pollinate the vanilla during the flowering stage. This is costly considering the low market rates for the pods, which leaves them counting losses, they add.
Farmers also have to fence their gardens to limit access to the crop and keep off would-be thieves, adds Byamukama.
Additionally, when the dry spell sets in, farmers hire casuals to fetch water to irrigate the gardens to keep the crop flourishing. This costs money, which we are not making presently, the farmers add.
It was for such reasons and fear of incurring losses that many farmers in the area never pollinated the vanilla after the prices plummeted last season, notes Tanazio Monday, from Rushango Town Council in Ibanda North County.
The drop in vanilla prices over the past four seasons has prompted some farmers to uproot the crop given the current market uncertainty, says Bigirwa, calling on the government to intervene and look for better markets.
The current vanilla harvest season kicked off on January 5.
Vanilla prices have dropped from sh350,000 per kilogramme in 2017 to between sh220,000 and 250,000 in the 2018-19 period. It was at about sh50,000 per kilo in 2022 before hitting the current lows, ranging from sh3,000-5,000 this season (for quality pods).
Low-grade pods range from sh300-500, depending on the buyer.
Dealers say pods should measure between 14cm and 15cm each in length, among others, to meet the required standards. Shorter and smaller pods are considered poor by the buyers.
Nicholas Kaggwa Munywanisha, a sub-contract buyer who supplies vanilla exporters in Kampala, attributes the continued reduction to low appetite for Ugandan vanilla which is “seen as of poor quality on the world market.” This in the past has largely been attributed to poor post-harvest handling.
Munywanisha says the decline in prices has come at a time when output is rising.
“Many people embraced the crop when prices were very attractive about four years ago. This has pushed up production. Unfortunately, there are a few buyers in the market,” adds the Mahega, Kagongo Division-based dealer.
The buyer paints a grim picture, projecting a poor run of prices in coming seasons. He says the current market sentiment about Ugandan pods does not portend well for the local vanilla sector.
According to Ibanda senior district agriculture officer, Silver Nkwasibwe, the low rates are seen continuing for the next two or so seasons.
He however says that the government and private sector stakeholders were working to find new markets for the local vanilla.