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The vanilla value chain is becoming increasingly direct: In 2014, Symrise began operations at a new fermentation and storage complex in Madagascar and also opened a high-tech extraction facility on the island. These investments and the company’s close cooperation with around 7,000 farmers are crucial to achieving the best possible quality with this precious raw material. The end result being not only a high-quality product, but a partnership that benefits all involved.

In the one direction, a five-minute walk down a sandy path will take you to the Indian Ocean. Just a few meters in the other ­direction will bring you to Highway 5a, which runs along Madagascar’s East Coast. And in between, in the midst of a sea of lush green flora, is the only significant industrial production ­facility in the region: Symrise’s new extraction plant. It was opened by the Madagascan Minister of Industry, the German Ambassador to the island nation and Symrise CEO Dr. Heinz-­Jürgen Bertram in an official ceremony in October 2014. Along with the Symrise team, the residents of Benavony also par­ticipated in the festivities. This small village lies near the facility, which is used by Symrise to produce its high-quality ­va­nilla ­extracts from the coveted beans. Together with the fermen­tation and storage facility 60 km away in Antalaha, this new facility which replaces a smaller site marks another important milestone in the company’s backward integration of vanilla. As a result, Symrise is involved in every stage of value creation – from the field to finished extract.

“We started eight years ago by purchasing the vanilla directly on-site. Today, we work with nearly 7,000 farmers in roughly 90 villages,” says Alain Bourdon. The idea behind the shift was simple: Purchasing high-quality, sustainable vanilla gives the company greater independence from the volatile raw materials market. The 45-year-old agronomist, however, notes another important aspect: “As part of this cooperation with the farmers, we are also working to improve their living conditions. When you include their families, we have a direct impact on more than 34,000 people.” These people benefit from Symrise’s approach and local value creation. Support for the farmers takes on many forms, including interest-free rice credits during economically challenging periods, the introduction of a health insurance program as well as agricultural diversification programs that aim to cushion the blow of potential poor harvests. Alongside of these are comprehensive educational and training offers, en­vironmental initiatives and support with gaining certification from the Rainforest Alliance, among others.

But let’s get back to those two new facilities for a moment. The local Symrise team designed and built the extraction ­facilities in collaboration with specialists from our headquarters in Holzminden and some regional companies. “We built this plant according to European standards. Now we can produce first-class vanilla extracts here, custom-tailored to the needs of our customers around the world,” explains Alain Bourdon.

The process has become second-nature to those involved: Upon delivery, the fermented beans are initially checked for quality. Nicolas Rasolomampionona oversees this proc­ess, which involves measuring the vanillin content, among other things. “It is a composition of hundreds of different substances that gives the vanilla bean its characteristic flavor and ­aroma,” the laboratory technician explains. In the next step, the va­nilla is chopped up and, depending on the customer’s specifications and the target country’s regulations, mixed with water and a solvent (usually alcohol) at a precisely defined ­ratio. The aromatic substances are drawn out of the bean and into the alcohol over the course of sev­eral cycles through the extractors. After filtering (as well as distillation for the stronger concentrations), the product is finished and is shipped to Germany.

The process sounds simple, but construction of the plant lasted one and a half years and lots of planning. 90 % of the ma­terials were shipped in from outside the country. The right loca­tion for the site was also very carefully selected. But all of this thoroughness paid off. “We are conveniently lo­cated at the heart of the vanilla region and have enough space for ­future expansion with around 36 ha of land,” says Alain Bourdon. In the future, raw materials like vetiver, an important and popular fragrance for manufacturing perfumes, or ginger are also to be extracted here in addition to vanilla.

These extraction processes require a lot of energy, but the ­region does not have a power plant or overhead power lines. This means that Symrise has to be self-sufficient. The hot steam needed for this process is generated, for example, in a custom-made wood-fired boiler. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that its fuel is grown specifically for the company in the surrounding region. Symrise founded tree nurseries for the cultivation of fast-growing tree species. Employees distribute the seedlings to village communities and towns as well as individual farmers. These then plant the trees, harvest the branches and sell the wood to Symrise. Along with the jobs provided by the plant, this project supplies many locals with an additional source of income.

The fermentation plant in Antalaha, housed in spacious whitewashed buildings, is almost as new as the extraction facilities. Wooden frames lie in the courtyard; the mesh inside them holding countless dark black vanilla beans as they dry in the sun. Mananjara sits in front of a gate, nearly motionless in his chair. Suddenly, the older man with the close-cropped white hair stirs and says a few words. At his command, 20 men and women run out to the frames and move the precious cargo indoors. Barely five minutes later, it starts to rain. The courtyard in front of the building is soon covered in water.

The “weatherman” has done it again. Mananjara observes the climate conditions in Antalaha. “He plays a very important role,” says Clement Cabrol, who leads the fermentation and storage complex. “In order to make a good product, we have to perfectly coordinate every phase of the process.” The 35-year-old’s team has a wealth of experience in the vanilla business. It’s a good thing, too, as the fermentation process requires exact know-how.

This starts with the careful selection of ripe, green vanilla, which the farmers have planted, pollinated, cultivated and ­harvested. Next, the beans are sorted according to ripeness and size, then blanched in large boilers run at finely tuned temperatures. The heat breaks up the cell structures in the vanilla beans and induces an enzymatic reaction. This re­action splits open the glucovanillin to produce vanillin. The warm vanilla is then placed into large wooden crates covered with cotton blankets to make them sweat. The moist, warm environment causes the beans to take on their brown color. To bring out the vanilla’s characteristic fragrance and flavor, the beans are placed outdoors to dry in the sun. Symrise experts closely monitor the vanilla during this pro­cess. Finally, the beans are moved indoors for storage.

Quality control follows every step of this months-long pro­cess, with every bean being handled countless times to check its moisture and elasticity and therefore ripeness, explains Clement Cabrol. Dozens of women sit at long wooden tables in two halls sorting the vanilla and tying them into 250-gram bundles. One of the ladies wearing the dark blue coat with Symrise logo is Soazery Sina Olivette. She turns the beans carefully in her hands, laying them in small stacks that seem identical at first glance. “I send every bean that doesn’t meet our specifications back to my colleagues.” This helps ensure a constant high level of quality in the subsequent extraction process. “We have managed to continuously refine the pro­cess over the past few years,” says Clement Cabrol, as he examines one of the bundles before it is sealed. “In doing so, we create the best possible product for our customers.”

Alexandra Carlin carefully takes the bundle of vetiver from the farmer’s outstretched hand. She runs her fingers over the slightly dried sweet grass and holds it under her nose. After a short cautious whiff, she inhales deeply. “That’s very intense,” says the 34-­year-old, who works on Fine Fragrances for Symrise in Paris. “I like to use it in un­usually big quantities for women’s perfumes to bring elegance and enhance personality.”

Alexandra Carlin is one of four Symrise perfumers from two locations that gathered ­inspiration in Madagascar for two weeks in the fall of 2014. They all were participants in a Scent Expedition, which the company had organized for its creative staff. Other groups had previously traveled to India, China, Tasmania and Oman. The purpose of these trips is to familiarize the fragrance experts with various regions around the globe, engaging all five senses. The concept is comprehensive. Visits to farms are on the agenda as are factory tours, such as the Symrise extraction plant in Madagascar. The colleagues also get to know the variety of local fruits, vegetables, flowers and other plants during their visits to markets and restaurants as well as in discussions with farmers and producers.

“We were overwhelmed with the number of species on the island,” says Pierre Kurzenne. “Just as impressive was the hard work that the farmers put into cultivating and harvesting,” adds the Senior Perfumer, who also works in Paris. Watching the farmers working hard together to dig up the deep roots of the vetiver plants made it clear to the 52-years-old Frenchman how much effort goes into producing this raw material.

But the sweet grass was not the only product on the island that inspired the group. The men and women were also shown how vanilla, the island’s main agricultural product, is cultivated and processed in Symrise’s own facilities. They talked with the employees there and toured cocoa, clove, ravintsara, cinnamon and ylang ylang plantations. A special highlight was the five-day trip in Marojejy National Park, where the perfumers climbed to an altitude of 2,100 m. The fragrance specialists also analyzed the raw materials directly on site with mini laboratories and collected samples to later test their findings more comprehensively back home. “It was really tough,” explains Pierre Kurzenne. “But the experience was absolutely worth it. The climb to the summit was a little bit like the work of a perfumer: You can’t be satisfied too quickly or give up if you want to achieve the best possible results.”

Gemeinsam mehr erreichen

Achieving More Together

Strategic alliance of Unilever, GIZ and Symrise

Together with its customer Unilever and the German Society for ­International Cooperation (GIZ), Symrise has formed a development partnership with an ambitious goal: educational projects that work from a number of levels in order to improve living conditions while also securing vanilla supplies for the future. This large-scale project, which was launched in January 2014, is focused on the SAVA region, where the majority of the vanilla farmers in Madagascar lives and works. The initiative aims specifically to sustainably increase the level of education of 4,000 farmers and their families. In all, the project will reach approximately 24,000 people in 36 communities.

The program is tailored for the vanilla farmers. In “Farmer Field Schools” and on 36 demonstration fields, the initiative shows how farmers can improve their harvest yields, gain additional sources of income and also protect the environment. After all, a worrying large amount of the land is in danger: slash-and-burn and rice cul­tivation have caused erosion and leached the soil of minerals, es­pecially on hillsides. The farmers learn how the soil can be remin­eralized by planting a fine-tuned mix of acacia, cloves, cocoa, peanuts, pineapples, bananas, and cassava, for example. The farmers also profit from these products because they can sell or eat them.

In addition to the current generation of farmers, the program is also geared towards adolescents. Far more than two-thirds of young people go into agriculture with the family after elementary school. Knowledge has not been passed down in more depth until now. In order to change this, Symrise, Unilever and GIZ are supporting three “Maisons Familiales Rurales.” This form of agricultural school already exists in 30 countries around the world. It is based on a simple concept: Young people between 17 and 25 years of age gain theoretical knowledge in these classes that they can apply in the fields during practical periods.