This post is part of a series of stories featuring the entrepreneurs who participated in Unreasonable East Africa’s 2015 program. 

Vanilla is one of the most labor-intensive crops in the world, as the flower must be pollinated by hand and then the beans must be blanched, sweated, dried and cured. And those at the heart of its production often don’t earn enough to make it worth their time. At times, the vanilla industry hovers on the brink of collapse.

In Tanzania, agriculture employs about 80% of the workforce and accounts for about half of the national income. Tweet This Quote

In 2011, the clear trend of global demand for vanilla coupled with the “clean label” movement meant that food manufacturers, restaurants and supermarkets started switching to more natural ingredients. That’s when the founders of Natural Extracts Industries (NEI) made it their business to grow vanilla efficiently—and benefit farmers in the process.

Based in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, NEI’s mission is to accelerate the economic development of smallholder farmers by adding value to their local crops, while simultaneously satisfying a global demand for sustainably sourced natural flavors—like vanilla.

In Tanzania, agriculture jobs reign supreme, employing about 80% of the workforce and accounting for about half of the national income. Yet, most of the 20 million Tanzanian farmers are smallholders struggling to earn a sustainable income. NEI started working with over 1,000 smallholder farmers and women’s groups, showing them how to intercrop vanilla with what they were already growing.

Most of the 20 million Tanzanian smallholder farmers struggle to earn a sustainable income. Tweet This Quote

“Typically, farmers in the region grow mostly coffee and bananas and sometimes seasonal vegetables,” says general manager Jay Akkireddy. “They earn their money by finding markets themselves. We propose to add vanilla to their existing crops, then link them to a global market that already has high demand.”

Akkireddy says on average their farmers earned around 350 USD per year before the addition of vanilla sales. With vanilla, they increased their profits to around 630 USD per year.

NEI farmers learning how to cultivate and sell vanilla.

NEI farmers learning how to cultivate and sell vanilla.

It’s difficult to add the vanilla crop into a growing cycle because of the special pretenses required to cultivate and harvest it to bounty. To eliminate this barrier to entry, NEI provides operational support. The company works in all areas from cultivation, to post-harvest processing, manufacturing and international sales and marketing.

“Our registered farmers receive training in good agricultural practices, including the use of natural bio-pesticides and composts,” says Akkireddy. “We also provide advice on financial and organizational matters.”

NEI states that their operations strive to be ecologically friendly, and they actively try to reduce the impact on the environment through recycling and reduction of consumables. They also have a pro-woman staffing policy to promote economic and social empowerment.

There is more demand than ever for ethically sourced food. Tweet This Quote

“We believe there is more demand than ever for ethically sourced food,” says Akkireddy. Their fair practices and unusually flavorful products earn them recognition within both regional and international markets.

Currently, small dairies and bakeries, and a range of restaurants and cafes use NEI products. Tourists often purchase their retail products, which are distributed at gift shops within hotels, lodges and airport duty free shops across East Africa.

“We continue to explore ways to improve our products and develop new, exotic flavors,” says Akkireddy. The company offers a range of extracts in addition to vanilla, including cacao, orange, coffee and cinnamon.

Tanzania may soon earn a new reputation for exporting one of the world’s hardest to grow crops. Tweet This Quote

If farmers can’t earn enough to produce a specialized crop, then they stop growing it. But with the ongoing support of NEI, Tanzania may soon earn a new reputation for exporting one of the world’s hardest to grow crops.

To date, NEI has purchased over 80,000 USD of product from their 1,000 smallholder farmers. The company’s medium-term goal is to reach 5,000-6,000 farmers, with the goal of expanding up to 20,000 farmers over the next decade.

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Cayte Bosler

Author Cayte Bosler

Cayte is an Unreasonable correspondent. She collects stories and lessons from and for entrepreneurs dedicated to solving the world's most pressing problems. She writes on a variety of subjects including science, technology, international development, the environment and travel.

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