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Vanilla is one of the most popular flavors around the world. Symrise uses the “Queen of the Spices”, as it is often called, in several thousand products. The company is highly committed to ensuring that the important raw material is com­pletely sustainably sourced by the year 2017 – as evidenced by a trip to follow the flavor.

  • photos Marcus Pietrek
  • Text Marc-Stefan Andres

“Mm, vanilla,” says the little girl with the dark blond curls, her whole face lighting up with pleasure. The vanilla ice cream that the five-year-old is enjoying is one of the many delightful products that Symrise makes available to consumers around the world with over 1,000 vanilla flavors. The variety is so large because not all vanilla is the same. Its flavor ranges from creamy and buttery to spicy and cinnamony, all the way to smoky. Vanilla can be found in almost all cookies and cakes. It flavors and harmonizes with chocolate as well as ketchup or cola. It is the most popular flavor for ice cream worldwide. The raw material is even used by the fragrance industry: for perfumes, ambient scents or care products.

What few consumers know, however: Behind vanilla lies a highly complex supply chain, which leads all the way to the far-off jungles of Madagascar. There, in the northeastern part of the island off the coast of Africa, thousands of small-scale farmers cultivate the vanilla orchid. They foster and care for their orchids carefully, pollinating the blossoms by hand and finally harvesting the ripe, green pods. But it is a long way until that vanilla is finally – in fermented and extracted form – on its way into the little girl’s ice cream.

For Symrise, the journey is worthwhile: The vanilla business is growing each year at a double-digit rate. In recent years, the com­pany has fundamentally reorganized and continuously expanded its supply chain – directly at the source in Madagascar, where it purchases around 10 % of the national vanilla harvest each year. The strategy was clear from the beginning: “We want to secure our source of high-quality vanilla for the future,” says Oliver Nembach. “And we quickly learned that this is only possible if we simultane­ously increase the vanilla farmers’ living standards, improve their levels of education and also secure their futures.” Symrise now helps more than 7,000 farmers to improve their economic position and become more independent.

The larger goal of the company is ambitious: “We want to completely cover our vanilla needs in a socially and ecologically responsible manner by the year 2017,” says the Global Competence Director for vanilla. When the initiative began eight years ago, this was not an easy task by any means. The vanilla purchasers were dependent upon distributors. In 2006, Symrise was the first company in its industry to invest locally and thus began to work directly with cooperatives and even with the individual farmers themselves. “This was new territory for us, which is why we cooperated closely with development aid organizations and NGOs,” recalls the 49-year-old.

Today, Symrise is connected to many vanilla farmers as part of a long-term partnership. “We teach the farmers how to increase the quality and yield of their harvests, and show them how they can make use of other cultivation opportunities.” While the farmers used to only grow vanilla and were thus dependent upon a single harvest, Symrise has now provided them with 87,000 cocoa seedlings and 50,000 clove seedlings. In addition, the com­pany has started its own health insurance fund, invested in education and provides microloans for rice during the dry season. “We aren’t doing all of this simply out of charity. With our involve­ment, we are encouraging the economic strength and independence of the farmers. That increases quality – and trust,” says Oliver Nembach.

Passionate Pioneers

At Food Ingredients Europe 2013, the largest industry trade fair in Europe, Symrise was able to come out on top against well-known competition: The company was presented with the FIE Excellence Award in the sustainability initiative category for its involvement with vanilla in Madagascar. The jury emphasized that Symrise was working as a “passionate pioneer” for the sustainable sourcing of vanilla. Back in 2012, Symrise received the German Sustainability Award for its work with vanilla in Madagascar. Since then, the company’s initiative there has been developed significantly. Symrise is now working together directly with more than 7,000 farmers and is dedicated to the long-term improvement of their living conditions.

For Symrise, this involvement makes sense because it also helps business. A core element of sustainability activities is economic success – both for the farmers and for Symrise. Only then can projects be successful over the long term and thus sustainable. “When we still worked with middlemen, we often only received minimal information about the origins of the vanilla and the conditions under which it was grown, processed and traded. Through this direct cooperation with the producers, we now know all of that in great detail,” says Nembach. “In this way, we can offer customers high quality, the greatest possible supply security and absolute traceability – in other words, truly added value.”

More than 100 Symrise employees are now located in Madagascar, ensuring that everything goes smoothly. From the daily dialogue with producers about the traditional fermentation of the pods to the extraction of the vanilla, everything is in Symrise’s hands. “We are not just interested in more sustainability – we have an overview of the local value chain in its entirety,” says Oliver Nembach. “In 2013, we opened a new fermentation and storage complex. And we have begun constructing a modern extraction plant that will be inaugurated shortly. These investments in the location are evidence of our long-term interest.”

The wishes of the customers can be better served through the broad local positioning, according to Gabriele Beier. And increasing importance is placed on sustainability – in various forms: “Some of our large partners, for example, offer organically grown or fairly traded products. Another partner focuses on products certified by the Rainforest Alliance,” says the key account manager, who is responsible for a multinational food company. “We offer every customer the vanilla product that best suits their brands and products – whether it is certified or not.”

The pods and extracts from Madagascar are finally used in flavor production in Holzminden, and are prepared in various combi­nations for local, regional and global customers. In addition to the pure extracts, there are various types of flavors that are being worked on by flavorists and application technicians in Germany. Consumers’ taste preferences are included in the development process. “We carry out intensive market research and approach the specific markets and their particular wishes individually, so that our customers are always able to sell the right product,” says Gabriele Beier. The global Symrise vanilla team cooperates closely with customers. That is incredibly important, says the key account manager. “Only then can we ensure that we are using vanilla’s diversity appropriately – and thereby creating value for everyone. From Madagascar to Manhattan.”

Achieving More Together

Together with our customer Unilever and the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), we have launched an comprehensive initiative in order to enable better living conditions for around 4,000 vanilla farmers in the Sava region of Madagascar. The development partnership includes a three-year program that will reach 32 communities and 44 schools. The program has the potential for improving the lives of 24,000 people in one of the poorest regions of the world. To achieve this goal, the program focuses on practical training classes, known as “farmer field schools,” in order to train the farmers in proven cultivation methods. In addition, agricultural schools for training the next generation will be formed, thereby improving access to further education. The development partnership is being co-funded as part of the program of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.