First, we needed a 4x4 of some sort, along with a driver willing to
chance roads that are sometimes passable, sometimes not. The man we
found struck us as the quietly skeptical sort, but after a few hundred
rutted kilometers, any hesitations he'd been suppressing hardened into
“The only people who drive on this road,” he told our photographer and
me, via our translator, “are people who want to kill their cars.”
Yet he gamely pushed ever deeper into Madagascar's tropical north,
until our mud road descended a hill and was swallowed by a wide river.
It was the end of the line for the driver. He seemed relieved.
Somewhere on the other side of that water, dozens of farmers would
soon converge upon a regional vanilla market in the village of
Tanambao Betsivakiny. Growers would negotiate with buyers working on
behalf of exporters and international flavoring companies, and
together everyone would hash out a collective, per-kilogram price for
Most buyers would pay cash on the spot, and the farmers would hand
over several tons of green, freshly harvested vanilla beans.
Those humble beans, whose essence is associated with all that's bland
and unexciting, have somehow metamorphosed, butterfly-style, into the
most flamboyantly mercurial commodity on the planet.
In the past two decades, cured vanilla beans have been known to fetch
almost $600 per kilogram one week, then $20 or so the next.
Northeastern Madagascar is the world's largest producer of natural
vanilla, so every boom and every bust slams this region like a
tropical storm. When prices peak, cash floods the villages. When
prices fall, it drains away.
Madagascar was largely integrated into global trade centuries ago. The
island is bigger than France, with cultural traditions that vary by
region, unique biological treasures, and a developing tourism economy.
The capital, Antananarivo, is full of laborers, lawyers, bureaucrats,
bankers, artists, entrepreneurs, intellectuals—everything a 21st
century city of 1.5 million needs.
Yet Madagascar is also one of the poorest countries on the planet. You
see and feel its disparities most sharply in its more remote pockets,
including in the vanilla-growing region of the northeast.
The extreme isolation of those communities, their dominance over the
international supply, the dramatic changes they undergo during price
swings—all of it has turned this part of the country into a
semicontained observation lab that exposes both the genius and the
insanity of globalized commerce.
Visiting one of the seasonal auctions where vanilla enters the global
marketplace seems a logical first step to try to understand it all.
So we really needed to cross that river.
The water didn't look too deep; we spotted people wading out toward
the other side, carrying baskets on their heads. We took off our
shoes, rolled up our pants, and stepped in.
The riverbed was lined with fiendishly slippery, cannonball-size
boulders. We plotted a slow, wobbly course to the other side. On the
far bank, someone told us the market was still a two-hour trek away.
It was mostly uphill, naturally. When the spiraling dirt road
plateaued, we found ourselves on the weedy edge of a village. A couple
of young men with motorbikes accepted the equivalent of a couple of
dollars for rides to shave a good half-hour off the trek.
If our arrival was accompanied by a whiff of self-congratulation, it
dissipated as soon as we saw the farmers. Most had been walking far
longer than we had, in flip-flops, with huge sacks of beans hanging
from sticks balanced across their shoulders.
Some of the bags weighed more than 40 kilograms. And for the farmers,
this was the easy part. They'd spent months in the fields, closely
monitoring their vines for any sign of a bloom. When they found a
vanilla orchid in flower, they rushed to hand-pollinate it. Each
flower's fertilization period lasts only a few hours each season; if
they missed that window, the plant wouldn't produce beans.
Then, as the beans matured on the vine, the farmers hand-stamped the
pods with a personalized, Braille-like marking (the horticultural
equivalent of a cattle brand), so thieves would have difficulty
passing them off as their own if they tried to sell them.
The farmers slept in the fields at night, machetes by their sides,
guarding their plants through rain, heat, and the buzz of malarial
mosquitoes. For many of them, an entire year's income depended on this
It would take place in a simple wood-slat structure about three times
longer than the village's typical single-family residence. For most of
the year the building was the local schoolhouse. The furnishings
consisted of a table, scattered chairs, and a rectangular chalkboard.
Outside, hanging under the eaves, was a portable hook scale.
One at a time, the farmers entered the hut and emptied their bags of
beans onto the floor. Government-authorized inspectors sifted through
the beans, making sure they were all suitably large and ripe. They
rebagged the beans and clipped the sacks to the scale outside, then
logged the weight of each farmer's harvest in a ledger.
In the dirt yard outside the hut, several dozen men stood in tight
circles, watching the weigh-in. They were the buyers, or collectors,
as they're called here. Most had arrived that morning, using rafts to
get their motorcycles across the river we'd forded.
The regional markets follow an established protocol, the men
explained. After the weigh-ins, the farmers gather together and come
up with a per-kilo asking price, then write that figure on the
chalkboard. The collectors stare at the number for a while, then
They rub out the farmers' price and scribble a counteroffer. This
back-and-forth is repeated until the figures match. When that happens,
the buyers divvy up the beans, collecting however many tons each has
agreed to buy.
The process can take a day or a week. If this one stretched into
tomorrow, most of the farmers and collectors planned to search for a
friendly villager with a little extra floor space where they might
curl up and sleep.
The year before, at a market much like this, one collector had gone
rogue, forgoing the chalkboard system and negotiating directly with a
village chief behind closed doors.
When news of the man's attempt to sidestep the protocol spread to the
other collectors, he was chased through the village, apprehended, and
This particular sale featured no spectacular foot chases or citizen's
arrests. But it had plenty of unexpected intrigue and deception. The
business is cruel, humane, comic, tragic, ingenious, and flat-out
insane, often at the same time.
As we struggled to untangle the drama playing out, we began to suspect
that our original goal—to try to understand the vanilla trade—should
It seemed more important to simply observe this whole business in a
particular way: with a sustained appreciation for how incredibly wild
global trade, at its most elemental level, actually is.
Vanilla orchids are native to Mexico, and for a few hundred years
after the Spaniards first brought the flowers back to Europe, no one
could get the beans to grow anywhere else.
In 1836 a Belgian horticulturalist figured out why: They emerge from
the flower only after it's pollinated by one of two rare species of
bees native to Mesoamerica.
Five years after that discovery, a young slave named Edmond Albius
from the island of Réunion (then called Bourbon) realized he could
hand-pollinate the orchids by carefully manipulating the male and
female parts of the plant.
His ingenuity transformed vanilla into a cultivatable crop, and small
plantations began popping up all over the world. The orchids seemed to
grow especially well in Madagascar, 500 miles due west of Réunion in
the Indian Ocean.
Vanilla, in its essence, is an adventure story.
For the next 150 years, vanilla played it straight, drawing little
attention to itself. By the 1980s, Madagascar was producing about 30%
of the world's supply.
Government controls kept prices tethered pretty tightly, to around $50
or $60 per kilo for cured beans. “You had some fluctuations, maybe $10
up or down, but it was pretty stable,” says Craig Nielsen, co-owner of
Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc., a flavor company based in Illinois and
the Netherlands that's dealt in the beans since 1907.
“Then, under pressure from the World Bank, which they owed a lot of
money to, Madagascar was forced to abandon those price controls in the
That's when vanilla started to shed its inhibitions. Prices dipped for
a year or two. Then, in 2000, a powerful cyclone flattened the
northeastern part of the country. It takes three years for a newly
planted orchid to produce beans, so harvests waned for the next few
years, causing prices to spike, then collapse.
International buyers reported that local exporters were asking about
$600 a kilo for cured vanilla on a Monday and roughly $20 by that
Warehouses were stuck with beans they couldn't sell for anything close
to what they'd paid for them, and a couple of the biggest, most
well-established vanilla dealers in the country went out of business.
For the past four years, prices have been riding high again, flirting
with the $600 mark in 2018 and rarely falling below $400 since. (The
going rate this fall was about $420 per kilo.)
The spike is sometimes attributed to a 2015 announcement by Nestlé SA
that the company would use only all-natural vanilla in its products
instead of imitation flavoring. Other companies followed suit. The
true impact of the decision is a matter of debate.
In the past year, consumers have sued numerous food and beverage
companies, Nestlé among them, claiming that some if not most of their
vanilla flavoring still comes from sources other than beans.
Spencer Sheehan, a New York attorney who's filed suits against more
than 25 companies, contends that the flavor is often derived from the
“other natural flavors” generically cited in the ingredients lists of
The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages, but none of the suits has
yet received class-action status from a judge. Regardless of the
validity of those suits, few in the industry say demand for natural
vanilla has changed enough to protect prices from another dip.
Almost everyone thinks a significant price plunge is a matter of when, not if.
Because northeastern Madagascar is so impoverished when vanilla prices
aren't high, banks and other financial institutions don't open a
branch near many villages. Farmers are more likely to bury cash under
their houses than to put it into an account.
The market demands that drive the exaggerated price swings are wholly
separate from their lives; almost no one here actually uses vanilla,
which is viewed as a product only foreigners consume.
The impermanence of cash flow, along with the near-complete disconnect
from forces moving the market, means the farmers view international
commerce from a much different angle than outsiders might.
“Consequently, money in northeastern Madagascar is not perceived as a
straightforward, interest-based sum accumulating over time in an
orderly fashion,” according to a study published last year in American
Ethnologist, the journal of the American Ethnological Society.
Annah Zhu, the author of the report, wrote that money in the
vanilla-growing region is instead treated as a “volatile material that
comes and goes, imbuing the region with fantastical undertones of
alternating abundance and dearth.”
That sporadic abundance has generated a new genre of local
storytelling, almost folkloric in nature, that catalogs local examples
of financial decadence. It's called vola mofana—roughly translated as
“hot money” spending—and the tales that illustrate the concept are
difficult to verify but easy to repeat.
It's said that one vanilla farmer was observed buying the entire
supply of mangoes from a roadside stand; he paid the vendor 10 times
the asking price, then joyfully smashed every piece of fruit on the
People say chameleons have been spotted skittering wild through
villages with money glued to their backs. One vanilla farmer reputedly
boiled all his money in a pot and ate the soggy, globular mass.
We heard about farmers who had smoked cash, rolling tobacco in it as
if the bills were cigarette papers. Zhu, in her journal article,
reported that at a festival, a man stepped up to a carnival booth,
bought a handful of rings to toss at a cluster of bottles, turned
around, and threw every ring in the opposite direction.
“This is how you play with money!” he yelled.
I wasn't sure whether to believe these stories or not. Most were said
to have happened several years ago to people who've since faded into
And most of the farmers we met seemed frugal, intent on building
wealth rather than squandering it. Yet almost everyone has a story
like this to tell.
Zhu acknowledges some might be more legend than fact, but their
pervasiveness makes them meaningful. Her point in gathering and
repeating the tales wasn't to dismiss the vanilla farmers and
collectors as simpletons dazed by the sudden collision of the modern
and the traditional.
Vola mofana stories, she says, don't describe an awkward phase of
Madagascar's economic development; rather, the profligacy they recount
can be considered a “tactical weapon” deployed by residents against
the “erratic, nonlinear development that characterizes globalization
By treating money so cavalierly—either literally or figuratively—the
vanilla farmers diminish the power the modern economic order can exert
upon them. Actions that seem to defy logic actually “reflect and often
resist the magicalities inherent in modern forms.”
A translation: Maybe it's not the farmers and collectors who've gone
off the rails when confronting the modern economic system; maybe
what's crazy is the modern system.
“We couldn’t buy vanilla for three days, until the government printed
more money and sent it up here. It was crazy”
Farmers are sometimes told that if they produce better beans, the
market will reward them with higher prices. But that's not how it
If a crop is projected to be weak and scraggly, buyers get antsy,
eager to secure whatever they can get, as soon as they can. The
farmers try to satisfy the demand, picking beans earlier than they
otherwise might, and the auction dates tend to slide forward.
Sometimes an early black market emerges, with beans trading hands
under the table before the official markets commence. Prices drive
upward, and the beans—picked too soon, with less flavor than mature
ones—often turn out to be even worse than predicted.
When the crop is expected to be healthy, all of that is turned upside
down. The farmers feel less pressure to pick their beans early; they
allow the vanilla to mature on the flower and develop a richer flavor,
and prices generally tend to stay lower. It's what market economists
call a “perverse incentive.”
“The worst vanilla, by far, that I've ever seen in my life was the
stuff that sold for $650 a kilo,” says Josephine Lochhead, president
of Cook Flavoring Co., a family business in California that's been
dealing in vanilla for more than a century.
“And the farmers think, Gee, I've worked on these beans for six
months, sleeping in the fields through rain, babying them, and this
year's beans are much better than last year's beans—so shouldn't I get
more money for them than for the terrible beans I grew last year?”
The way money moves, traveling from the accounts of billion-dollar
corporations and into the hands of the farmers, also follows a logic
of its own.
Madagascar's largest currency denomination is the 20,000-ariary note,
worth a little more than $5. It went into circulation in 2017, a year
after vanilla prices shot toward the lofty heights where they yet
The previous year, when the 10,000-ariary bill was the biggest to be
had, international buyers scrambled at harvest time to get their hands
on all they could find.
They rushed to the big banks in Antananarivo and bounced around the
branches of the northeast, only to be turned away.
Lochhead was one of those buyers. She couldn't figure out what was
going on until she saw local reps from McCormick & Co. arrive. The
American spice giant had anticipated a price spike and acted faster
than anyone else, she recalls, withdrawing ariary by the crateful from
banks in the capital, then reinforcing its stash at smaller branches.
“No one else could get any,” Lochhead recalls. “We couldn't buy
vanilla for three days, until the government printed more money and
sent it up here. It was crazy.”
Whenever the price of vanilla spikes and international executives are
confronted by Madagascar's infrastructural precariousness, they ask
themselves, Why are we subjecting ourselves to this? Wouldn't it be
easier to get our vanilla from someplace else?
New vanilla cultivation projects have been introduced nearly
everywhere orchids naturally thrive. But vanilla is stubborn. It likes
to grow among other plants, and if you try to create a huge, easily
managed, monocultural plantation, certain fungal diseases tend to
“We've started farms in Fiji, in Indonesia, and we have one in Papua
New Guinea,” Lochhead says. Those farms have worked, to a certain
extent. “They just don't work as well.”
In the Netherlands, teams of horticulturalists embarked in 2012 on a
pilot project to cultivate vanilla in greenhouses. Earlier this year
they ran out of funding and concluded their crop wasn't financially
Connoisseurs describe vanilla from Indonesia as earthy and smoky; from
Uganda as chocolaty; from Tahiti as fruity and flowery; from Mexico as
hinting of clover and nutmeg. But the Malagasy stuff tastes like what
people expect from really good vanilla: rich, sweet, creamy. Those
subtleties might help explain, to a fractional extent, why Madagascar
dominates the trade.
A much bigger reason is cheap labor. Since Madagascar let the free
market take over, the country's share of world vanilla production has
risen to 80% or more, according to industry experts.
The broader price swings are partly responsible for that growth.
Vanilla beans are delicate and incredibly labor-intensive, and no part
of the planting, pollinating, cultivating, and curing process has been
Each vanilla bean will be touched by human hands hundreds of
times—perhaps thousands—before it's exported.
It's a perfect illustration of the globalized economy's heat-seeking,
laser-guided ability to stretch a resource to the limit. For those
arguing that globalization is unreasonable and exploitative, the
vanilla farmers of Madagascar have become a problem to solve.
Various nongovernmental organizations have introduced campaigns to
raise wages, stamp out child labor, and direct more profits to the
farmers and villages carrying the industry on their back. Many flavor
companies have gotten on board, too, creating the Sustainable Vanilla
When the beans are bringing in hundreds of dollars per kilo, many
countries in desirable latitudes can afford to deploy that much labor.
But what about when prices tank?
Wages in the other vanilla-producing countries are 10 to 15 times
higher than in Madagascar, where the legal minimum wage for
agricultural workers is 18¢ an hour.
In those other places, vanilla plantations would hemorrhage money
during downturns. “No one will invest in that,” Lochhead says. “How
can you compete with Madagascar, where people work for $1 a day?”
In northeastern Madagascar there's widespread suspicion that
middlemen—the collectors and local exporters—are sponging up more than
their fair share of the cash flowing into the region.
This year, Lochhead devised a plan to try to work around them. She and
a former vanilla farmer named Dylan Randriamihaja formed a cooperative
consisting of 63 farmers from four villages.
Throughout the growing season, Randriamihaja visited the farmers,
monitoring their techniques, making sure they complied with organic
standards, and checking the quality of the beans.
The plan was that after harvest, the co-op members would take their
beans to one of the little regional markets. The collective,
negotiated price would still apply to their crop, but Lochhead would
pay a premium of about 2% above the going rate, and they'd direct all
of their beans to her.
Lochhead would get as many as 15 tons of beans she could trust were
organic and of high quality; the farmers in turn would pocket more
money from her than they'd get from a collector.
What's more, Lochhead wouldn't have to pay any collectors a commission
for negotiating the sale, and—because Randriamihaja had an exporting
license—the two of them could ship the beans overseas themselves.
Lochhead and Randriamihaja sent an assistant to the market where the
co-op farmers gathered—the same one, across the river and up in the
hills, that we visited.
He'd oversee the sale and haul the beans back to Sambava, the city
closest to the remote vanilla markets and the capital of the
That was the plan, anyway. But the vanilla trade did what it often
does to a well-thought-out plan: It wrecked it. Or, rather, a
mysterious man in a red hat wrecked it.
While the collectors milled around the market, Marcel Sama walked
among them, sweating under a fierce sun. He was the emissary sent to
the market by Lochhead and Randriamihaja, and he called the members of
their co-op together for a meeting behind the auction building, away
from the others.
He explained to them that he expected the collective sale price at
this market to be close to $55 per kilo for the raw, uncured beans.
(Raw vanilla beans generally sell for about one-seventh or one-eighth
of what cured ones do, partly because beans shrink during the curing
Some of the farmers grumbled; they'd been hoping for a little more.
Sama let them talk out their frustrations until the meeting ended in
smiles and backslaps.
The weigh-in was finishing up, and negotiations were about to
commence. Two young men grabbed two packed rice sacks from the cargo
racks of their motorbikes and hoisted the parcels onto a pile of
They gently draped two jackets over the bags, as if to hide them, but
everyone knew they were full of cash. The men told us they'd hauled
the money to the market on behalf of Symrise AG, a multibillion-dollar
German flavor and fragrance company, which buys more Madagascar
vanilla than anyone else.
Another collector, a man in a red baseball cap and an olive green
jacket, lingered at the perimeters of the market, keeping a lower
profile as the other buyers began to discuss their collective bid.
Most of them agreed that a bid of about $55 per kilo was fair. Sama
was happy to hear it. But then the man in the red hat piped up, saying
he'd be willing to pay $62 per kilo.
Sama couldn't believe it. It was too much. If the bid held, the co-op
would have to pay its farmers about $65 per kilo—20% more than
Lochhead had paid for several tons of beans a few days earlier at
Some of the other collectors indicated they might be willing to go
higher than $55, but this bid seemed excessive. And the unbendable
custom of the market is that all beans must sell at the same price.
The man in the red hat indicated that this wouldn't be a problem: He
would buy the entire inventory at $62 per kilo, if the farmers agreed.
Even the members of the co-op couldn't resist such an offer.
There was just one thing. The money, the man explained, was still in
offices on the other side of the river. It would take him several
hours to get all of it hauled out to the market hut.
As it was already afternoon, he asked them to give him until the next
morning, when he'd return with the cash, first thing. It was a deal.
Some of the farmers spent that night sleeping next to their beans, to
make sure nothing was stolen.
The next morning, all of the farmers reconvened. But the man in the
red hat was nowhere to be found. Hours ticked by. He didn't return.
“This,” she said, pulling a moist brown pod from the pile, “is the
perfect vanilla bean. How much does he have?” Olivier wouldn't say
By the next day we had rejoined Lochhead and Randriamihaja in Sambava.
Sama called them to say the false bid had thrown everything off.
Negotiations had started anew.
The farmers were now angry—and empowered. They'd observed some
collectors seriously considering matching the bogus bid the day
before, and their baseline asking price was no longer $55 per kilo.
When a few collectors agreed to the $62, Lochhead and Randriamihaja
bowed out. The cooperative farmers sold their beans to others.
“It's frustrating, because the farmers can say our co-op didn't offer
them a good price,” Randriamihaja said. “But I think they will come
back to us. We will try again.”
The man in the red hat had been a saboteur, he guessed. But who sent
him? Rumors floated around the market that the man worked for an
exporter that didn't want cooperatives limiting its access to beans.
“I think he probably was sent by a big company, just to upset the
market,” Randriamihaja speculated. “It has happened before, several
times. They want to ruin our reputations.”
In 2019 about 400 companies were licensed to export vanilla from
Madagascar, and many are small and relatively new. Randriamihaja, who
got his license three years ago, is one of those up-and-comers.
Some people, particularly the established exporting companies, argue
that some of these inexperienced dealers are diluting Madagascar's
market with low-quality, poorly cured beans. They support ongoing
government initiatives to cut the number to as few as 40 licensees.
“They say it's for quality reasons, but that doesn't make sense to
me,” Randriamihaja said. “Those big companies are handling 600 tons a
year, so how can they control the quality of that? We do something
like 15 tons a year. We can provide a good, quality bean, because
we're controlling them every day, through every step of the process.”
Lochhead nodded in agreement. To her, the license reduction scheme
felt like a power play. “It's a racket,” she said. “A big boys' club.”
She and Randriamihaja now needed another way to get vanilla beans.
They spent the next two days going to villages in search of vrac, the
term for beans that have been partially cured.
Vrac can be stored for longer periods than raw beans, and some
farmers like to deal in it because it can provide income in the months
after the harvest.
Inside a one-room hut of split bamboo, Lochhead and Randriamihaja
found an 80-year-old man named Farlahy Gilbert. He looked as thin and
wizened as the beans he spread out for them to inspect.
Lochhead cast a critical eye on his supply. She lifted a couple of the
oily beans to her nose. “Ooh,” she said, wincing. “There's mold.
That's bad. Smell it.”
Gilbert fetched another batch and poured it out for them. “It looks
pretty wet,” Lochhead said. She guessed it was about 40% moisture.
Gourmet vanilla vrac should be 32% to 35%. “Tell him to get this out
in the sun,” she told Randriamihaja.
Their next stop was a hut right across the road, where a 34-year-old
farmer named Be Olivier lived. “Now this is workable,” Lochhead said,
kneeling down in front of the vrac the farmer had spread out on a
coffee table for inspection.
Her flowing white dress pooled around her legs, and she closed her
eyes as she inhaled the sweet, heavy scent. To her, this was the best
part of her business: the direct, sensory pleasure when things went
“This,” she said, pulling a moist brown pod from the pile, “is the
perfect vanilla bean.” She admired it, smiling, for an extended
moment. “How much does he have?” she asked.
Olivier told them he had plenty to sell, but he wouldn't say exactly
how much. “They will never tell you that,” Randriamihaja said. They
By any international standard, Olivier was living in poverty, without
running water or reliable electricity. But high vanilla prices had
allowed him to accumulate some enviable assets in recent years.
He'd grown up in a hut made of palm thatch and moved to one of split
bamboo; now his walls were made of solid wood planks.
And unlike most of the village's huts, his had two rooms. Where once
his floors were bare earth covered by rugs, now he walked on smooth,
The chairs in the living room had cushions on them. And he had a
television, powered by a single solar panel balanced on the peak of
his corrugated roof and connected to the village's only satellite
When we asked Olivier to verify the spelling of his name, he motioned
to his 7-year-old daughter, who'd been watching from a bed in the
adjoining room. He'd recently enrolled her in school, and when she
spelled out his name for us, he smiled with undisguised pride. She was
mastering things he'd never thought possible for himself.
Randriamihaja could relate. He grew up in a crowded hut with six
sisters and three brothers, the children of vanilla growers.
Tiny fingers were valuable when handling delicate flowers, and he
worked the fields for years. His parents rarely collected cash for
their beans; more often, they'd trade them to visiting Chinese and
Indian merchants for items such as blankets and sugar.
As the vanilla market opened up in the mid-1990s, Randriamihaja
encountered more international buyers.
A combination of curiosity and ambition drew him toward them. Slowly,
to complement the Malagasy and French he spoke, he taught himself to
read, write, and speak English.
He'd practice with the few tourists he met at the Orchidea Hotel in
Sambava. A natural conversationalist unafraid of throwing himself into
new experiences, he decided his future might lie in the tourism
He traveled to Antananarivo, completed courses there, and returned to
start a business as a guide.
The work was inconsistent, mostly because only the most intrepid
tourists made it to his corner of the country, and after a few years
he decided to return to the business he'd grown up in.
He started farming and curing his own vanilla beans, selling them to
local exporters. Five years in, he got a call from the proprietor of
the Orchidea Hotel. An American was in town, he was told. She was
interested in vanilla, and she needed help.
It was 2015, and Lochhead was midway through her first visit to
Madagascar. For years she'd been buying its vanilla from afar, but she
wanted to immerse herself in a trade she'd also been born into, to
experience it directly and connect herself to its source.
Things weren't going well: She was battling stomach bugs, and the
niece who'd accompanied her was holed up in the hotel, shivering
through a bout of malaria. Lochhead had hoped to explore the
possibility of dealing more directly with locals in purchasing her
beans, but she was in no condition to explore anything. “I was kind of
overwhelmed,” she remembered.
Randriamihaja met her at the hotel, and they jelled. He became more
than just a guide to the local industry, getting his exporting license
later that same year and turning into something more like a partner.
He listened to her frustrations and searched for solutions. When she
said she needed a more reliable source of certified organic vanilla,
he organized the cooperative and trained its members to make sure they
followed the certification standards.
Although the cooperative ended up selling its beans to other buyers
this year, both he and Lochhead viewed that disappointment as a
Not too long ago, he took the leaders of the cooperative to a regional
bank branch to show them how the banking system works.
He opened an account for the group and, over the course of multiple
visits, showed them how money could be electronically transferred from
one account to another.
“They didn't trust it at first,” Randriamihaja said. “It was very hard
to convince them. But after the leaders saw that the money really was
in there, that it wasn't a trick, and that they could get the money
anytime, they were OK with it. So this is how we will pay them from
Recently, Randriamihaja boarded a plane and flew beyond the shores of
his island for the first time. He traveled all the way to the U.S. to
visit Lochhead's vanilla production facility in Paso Robles,
Calif.—his turn to plunge into an entirely foreign landscape.
From Los Angeles, he made his way north. He came to the banks of the
Santa Clara River, crossed it, and ventured back toward the coast.
Everything was exotic: the five-lane freeways, the baseball stadiums,
the wineries, the arrow-straight rows of asparagus and cabbage
stretching to the horizon. It was the adventure of his life, and it
Now, back in Madagascar, he was overseeing a team that was curing
several tons of beans Lochhead had recently bought. The workers spread
the beans on drying racks in his yard.
At the front of his house, outside a guard station, an American flag
now flew beside the one from Madagascar. In his office a stereo played
country and western music. Randriamihaja wore a T-shirt that, against
an outline of a map of America, said, “This Is Chevy Country.”
It would be difficult to come up with a more on-the-nose illustration
of how globalization colors all it touches. But in Randriamihaja's
office, the colors blur and bleed into one another. Is the image of
him—in that T-shirt, listening to that music, under that flag—an
example of how local cultures get subsumed by more dominant ones?
Or is it a reflection of how one man celebrates the connections that
have permanently broadened his perspectives?
It's both things at once, sort of like the poster Randriamihaja
displays on the wall behind his desk. It advertises a campaign by the
International Labour Organization to stamp out child labor in the
vanilla fields. He backs that program and the intentions behind it.
But he admitted his perspective is blurred by mixed feelings.
“I guess they could say I was a victim of child labor,” he said. Was
it exploitation or opportunity? You could make a strong argument
either way, he said. “To me, I was just helping my parents.”
Above us, the clank of hammers threatened to drown out the country
music coming from the stereo speakers. On the roof, workers were busy
adding another story onto Randriamihaja's house.