What you need to know:
- Vanilla is harvested twice a year; June -July and December –January.
- Uganda has some of the best vanilla in the world and this puts it at a competitive advantage with the rest of the world’s producers.
The falling prices of vanilla have left farmers frustrated, with many afraid that they might not recover investment costs during the harvesting season, which commences next month.
The farmers say some buyers have already intimated that the prices may drop further, with a kilogramme of vanilla going for between Shs10,000 and Shs20,000, down from about Sh50,000 10 months ago.
Sector players say the impact of Covid-19 pandemic has eroded the demand for the crop on the international market.
In January last year, a kilogramme of green bean vanilla had reached Shs300,000.
“The investment costs have remained high, but we are already getting reports that prices are going to fall further. The future of our business is uncertain, and we ask government to intervene and stabilise the prices; otherwise, farmers will soon quit,” Mr Peter Musisi, the chairperson of Vanilla Farmers Association in Greater Masaka area, said during an interview at the weekend.
This is not the first time vanilla prices are dropping to low levels. Fifteen years ago, the price of vanilla, which had reached Shs150,000 a kilogramme, nosedived to almost Shs1,000. However, in 2014, it started rising, with a kilogramme ranging from Shs2,500 to Shs5,000.
Amid the falling prices, the farmers say they have spent a lot of money to guard their gardens from raids by armed thugs. On average, vanilla farmers pay Sh900,000 to each private guard during the entire season, which lasts six months.
“Considering what we have invested so far, it will be very difficult to make meaningful profits if the prices continue to fall,” Mr Musisi added.
A couple of years ago, vanilla farmers asked President Museveni to allow them acquire guns to protect themselves against armed thugs that raid their gardens at night.
But the President rejected the idea of giving guns to untrained civilians and instead tasked the army leadership to train an auxiliary force of Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel made up of locals from the affected districts to guard vanilla fields. Some LDUs have since been deployed to guard vanilla fields in various districts.
Mr Aineah Sikabyaholo, a vanilla farmer in Karugutu Town Council, Ntoroko District, said they are being cheated by middle men who buy the crop at lower prices.
Mr Sikabyahola said they are selling each kilogramme of vanilla at Shs30,000 and he hopes the price will rise by July.
“Last year, we were selling each kilogramme at Shs50,000; now the price has reduced to Shs30,000, and this is set by the middlemen,” he said.
Mr Raphael Mate, another vanilla farmer, said many farmers are making losses because of price fluctuations.
“I belong to a farmers’ cooperative where I sell my vanilla but those who are not in any cooperative sell to middlemen who cheat them. Some of us hire security guards whom we are supposed to pay but when the prices fall, we make losses and fail to pay them,” he said.
Mr Aga Sekalala Senior, one of the leading vanilla processors and exporters through Uvan (U) Limited, said they are yet to set prices for the crop.
“Farmers should not speculate because the prices drastically dropped last season from Shs200,000 per kilogramme to Shs50,000, and we think that it will be at that even this season. And in case of any changes, we shall communicate to them,” he said.
Available statistics indicate that Ugandan vanilla farmers produce 31.4 metric tonnes annually.
Mr Umar Kityo, the coordinator of vanilla farmers in Buikwe District, said the drop in vanilla prices is as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have been supplying vanilla to the US and United Kingdom but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, most the buyers in those countries are struggling; the stock we supplied during the December –January season is still in their stores,” he said.
However, Mr Kityo advised farmers to ensure quality of their crop and avoid harvesting pre-mature beans.
“Let them observe quality so that by the time the price rises, it is not used as an excuse to reject their crop,” he said.
Some farmers in Buikwe District have also expressed concern over snails that attack their crops.
“The snails attack our vanilla and destroy the flowers between 9pm and 7am,” Mr Mukasa Kivumbi, a farmer in Kawolo Village, Lugazi Municipality, said.
Mr Morris Kyambadde, the Buikwe district agriculture officer, acknowledged the challenge but said he is yet to get technical advice from the ministry of Agriculture to deal with the snails.
Vanilla is harvested twice a year; June -July and December –January. Uganda has some of the best vanilla in the world and this puts it at a competitive advantage with the rest of the world’s producers. Most of Uganda’s vanilla is exported to Europe with the extract grades sold to US. In the mid-90s, vanilla became the leading source of income for many households in Mukono, Mpigi, Luweero, Bundibugyo and Kasese districts, but some abandoned the crop due to fluctuating prices and thieves who raid their gardens.
Compiled by Al-Mahdi Ssenkabirwa, Alex Ashaba, Wilson Kutamba
& Denis Ssebwami