Samoan vanilla grower’s hobby turns into lucrative business

Samoa’s vanilla grower Shelley Burich has turned her hobby into a business at a time when the international vanilla price remains high.

Owner Shelley Burich in her Vaoala Vanilla plantation.

Mrs Burich is the Executive Officer of the Samoa Cancer Society and has grown vanilla for the past nine years.  Initially she just wanted “something to do while I was home.”

Fortuitously, international prices have risen from $100 a kg in 2015 to $600 in April, according to Craig Nelson of US vanilla and flavouring group Nielsen Massey.

Madagascar, the world’s top vanilla producer was badly hit by a cyclone and last year by a drought.  The high vanilla prices were expected to continue well into 2018 as the estimated production losses amounted to 20% in green beans before they were processed for 2017.

Pacific Periscope spoke with Mrs Burich about her transition from hobbyist to business owner.

Mrs Burich started selling vanilla beans locally in 2013 but she only began producing vanilla paste, extract and powder 8-9 months ago. The products “exploded” in demand and this year her company, Vaoala Vanilla was born. The year’s harvest and yield has been great with the beans currently being processed.

A small shipment of vanilla beans was exported to a small family owned Japanese wholesaler who were very keen to start a partnership. But Mrs Burich is clear about Vaoala Vanilla’s vision — to be a standalone niche product and not be lost in “one big conglomerate pile of beans where we lose our identity.”  Instead she is looking for buyers that offer niche, speciality type stores.

Vaoala Vanilla essence and vanilla beans.

“My aim is to have Samoan vanilla singled out and recognised on its own merits as a high-quality product using the Vaoala Vanilla brand,” Mrs Burich said.

Interest has also come from a Christchurch based chocolate making company and three Australian companies. But there are just a handful of organic vanilla farmers down from the original 60+ who started planting back in 2008. The dramatic drop in numbers was due to the crops labour intensity and that it is not a fast cash crop. However, the Samoa Government has begun to revitalise its vanilla industry.

Back in 2008, Samoa’s Women in Business (WIBDI) encouraged new farmers to grow organic vanilla.

Mrs Burich started with 50 bourbon vines in 2008 and has grown this to 245 vines (approximately a fourth of an acre) over a two to three-year period with an additional 100 Tahitian variety vines.

Mrs Burich spent the first two years attending WIBDI training courses on vanilla growing and processing learning from experts from Tahiti, Tonga and Vanuatu. In 2010 her property was organically certified (NASAA) through WIBDI.  However, that success was tempered when Cyclone Evan wiped out half her farm with a flash flood that came from the mountain overflow.

“This would have been the closest I have been to giving up – but I didn’t,” Mrs Burich said.

“I have a deep connection with my vanilla farm and treat it as part of my family – as a mother to a child.”  Her close affinity to ‘mother earth’ is reflected in her business motto “Grown by nature, nurtured with love,” she said.

She is passionate about her plantation visiting 4-5 days a week after work and on weekends.

Mrs Burich believes she is still in the ‘infancy’ stages of trying to understand what is required to supply both the domestic and international market. There is a way to go before the business becomes fully operational and feels she still has a lot to learn about the business world.

Down the track, Mrs Burich is keen to export to New Zealand and Australia and that could be the perfect opportunity to attend the Pacific Trade Invest Pacific Path to Market workshop in Samoa scheduled for September. The programme helps potential exporters understand the New Zealand market.

For more information please email Joe Fuavao, PTI Trade Development Manager at joe.f@pacifictradeinvest.co.nz

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