By George Munene
A single freshly harvested vanilla bean is worth Sh250, but once you have the expertise to cure and grade it, that very bean could be worth up to Sh1000. Yet despite neighbouring countries, Tanzania and Uganda, having a vibrant vanilla agribusiness, Kenya’s potential remains unrealised.
When Andrew Simiyu started vanilla farming in 2018, he found information on the crop hard to come by – he even lost half of his initial vines. But over the course of two years, he’s now been able to nurture 500 vines and is expecting to harvest his first seeds this December.
Here is what he’s learnt in his first 30+ months of cultivating the crop in Mwalpala, Kwale county:
Vanilla vines are mainly propagated via cuttings. Starting out, Andrew was unable to find cuttings to plant locally and sourced them from vanilla farmers in Uganda and Zanzibar.
A single vanilla cutting can cost Sh800 bought in bulk, or Sh1000, if bought in smaller numbers. However, after planting the first set, after about 2½ years, right when the vanilla is about to flower, cut off their stem tops. This gives you another vine, and also spurs flowering.
First 3 weeks to 1 month
First planting can be done in a nursery or directly to the field. The young, vulnerable vines need to be planted in a controlled area where they can be monitored. The area also needs to be well manured and shaded. Transplanting is done once the vine starts showing signs of new growth
1 month to 2 ½-3 years
On average, it takes 2 ½-3 years for a vanilla tree to fully mature, flower and give seeds.
Vanilla vines share a lot of similarities with passion fruits; they need shade and support. They can be planted next to posts or trees. Vines creeping up trees mature faster as they are able to feed off the trees’ barks. Trees also provide a natural canopy that shades the vines. The tree cover should, however, not be too dense, as vanilla doesn’t do well in cold weather.
In intensive farming, using posts, you can fit 2,500 vanilla vines on a single acre of land. You will need about 1 ½ meter spacing in either direction to give enough space for each vine to freely grow and allow for easy access when carrying out fieldwork.
You should let the vines creep up a tree or post only to a height you can reach when you have to manually induce flowering. You can loop the vine into the mulch if it is getting too tall, leaving the tip up, and it will regenerate and creep up once again.
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With his crop of 500 vines now in its flowering period, Andrew gets up at 5 am before it’s too hot and while the flowers are still fresh to manually pollinate them by detaching a film that separates the male and female gametes using a toothpick. Vanilla flowers last a single day, they open just before sunrise and wilt before nightfall. If they are not pollinated during this short window, they fall from the plant, which is a seed worth at least Sh250 that you will not harvest until the next flowering season.
For Mr.Simiyu, another benefit to vanilla is that, unlike other high value crops, it demands little upkeep. Every three months he clears any dense grass growing around his vines: he also manures and mulches them.
Warm humid climates with temperature ranging from 21 to 32°C are ideal. For Mr Simiyu, though vanilla is able to tolerate extreme temperatures, he would dissuade anyone around areas such as Mt.Kenya or Limuru, where the temperatures can fall to extremely low, from planting vanilla as its growth would be markedly inhibited.
Vanilla does well in a variety of soils as long as they are well drained and rich. On his own farm, Andrew has found the crop does well in well drained black/red loam soil.
Pest and Disease control
Thus far, Andrew says he hasn’t had to contend with any widespread disease outbreak on his farm. The sap within the leaves of vanilla can cause irritation on soft skin and repels most bugs. Regular cultural practices such as grass and weed clearing have served him well. He does use neem water treatment as a proactive measure to ward off any potential pests. The international market – which he has an eye on in the long term – demands vanilla be organically grown to fetch the best prices.
Curing and Grading
A vanilla bean that is freshly harvested has no aroma and can fetch Sh250 fresh off the farm. Once it’s cured and graded it could potentially be worth Sh1000.
The curing process takes 2-3 months. It demands you give your bean 2-3 hours of sunlight every day and have them in a room that’s well aerated to drain away any moisture. A Graded A vanilla bean measures 22-18 cm and is the highest quality, grade B measures 18-13/12 cm and the lowest grade C, is below 12 cm.
From his first-hand experience, Mr.Simiyu has found vanilla to be a hardy crop; over dry months such as February, before he had a steady year- round source of water, the crop’s growth was muted, or it lay entirely dormant until weather conditions improved.
From its first seeding, a vine that is properly cared for can keep going for 8-10 more years.
Andrew Simiyu can be reached through; 0707 70971