Vanilla. It is the world’s most popular flavor. In fact, there’s hardly a baking recipe in existence that does not call for this uniquely flavorful wonder of nature. Does it simply appear magically on the grocery shelf? Perhaps there is some magic to it. There is, at least, when it comes to the story of Native Vanilla an importer of the world’s finest vanilla beans.
The story begins in the early 1980’s, when a young boy named Dan Edmiston moved with his family to a small village on the Karawari River in Papua New Guinea (PNG). “At that time, it seemed to me that everything necessary for life came freely from the jungle and the river. Days were filled with paddling canoes, fishing on the river and foraging. Life seemed so blissful to me. I have wonderful memories of those days, paddling in my dugout canoe, swimming in the Karawari and eating sak (a snack made from sago palm).”
Dan loved PNG and when he left there in his teens, he knew that one day he would return. Dan didn’t know how or when, but he knew that he wanted to “give back to Papua New Guinea, as it had given so much to me.”
In 2014, after selling a successful fintech company that he built in Africa, Dan did return to his island homeland. It was a trip he made to visit his childhood friends and to hopefully relive some of those fond childhood memories. When Dan arrived, however, he found PNG to be a very different place. Subsisting off the land no longer provided for the needs of a typical family. The world of 2014 required motors for the canoes and school fees for the children. With villages far removed from more advanced cities, people were left to cope with a lack of adequate education, difficult access to potable water, and little or no medical services.
“My village brother took me into his house,” recalls Dan, “and showed me his 5 giant bags of vanilla pods leaning against the wall. He wanted to know how much his vanilla would sell for. I had no way of answering – I told him I didn’t know what vanilla was worth. He then asked me the weight of one bag, and again I had no idea. It really struck me then… the powerlessness of the people.”
Is Village Life a Life of the Past?
Over the years, in order to meet the financial challenges of this new way of life, Dan’s East Sepik villager family had turned to growing cash crops such as vanilla. But farmers were at the mercy of the buyers who named the price, adjusted the scale and, for whatever reason, could suddenly decide not to buy from that farmer’s village at any time. When they did buy, often the buyer would not come far enough up the river to reach the village, making the transport of the vanilla to the buyer a time-consuming and expensive one for the farmer. There was often no guarantee of receiving a fair price upon arrival.
“The people worked their farms, harvested their vanilla, then waited and hoped with no influence over the outcome. A scale would even the odds a little bit but, the buyers would not like being challenged.” Dan saw that the people needed much more than a scale. They needed reliable buyers, a clearly defined path to the markets, and they needed the system rebuilt from the ground up. Only then could they retain a fair share of the profits of their hard work.
With the realization that the village of his youth needed help and he could provide it; Dan came out of his very brief retirement to start what would become Native Vanilla. “I couldn’t shake the thought that I had been given a rare chance to make a direct change. I understood the culture and the people. I could speak the language. I also understood the western business world.” He then had to explain his plan to his wife. “Aren’t you going to take a break and retire for just a little while?” she asked him. “No,” he replied. “There is nothing holding me back now from focusing on helping my PNG family.” He could not wait to get started.
Dan began with an understanding that this was no small task. This was his first thought: the farmers needed an entirely new system where micro-farmers would be trained to grow a quality, profitable product. A system which would increase the farmers’ financial security, prevent soil depletion in the gardens, and raise the yield and quality of their crops by connecting them with information from veteran vanilla cultivators. Dan understood that half-measures would do little, and a short-term solution was no solution at all.
A Passion for People
It is easy to see why and how Native Vanilla is a company founded on a passion for people. Native Vanilla is more than top-quality vanilla pods and products. Dan sees it as “an opportunity to participate in improving communities.” To that end, Native Vanilla partners with farming villages to implement projects that will have an enduring impact on the health and welfare of the entire community, providing mobile buying hubs that reduce each farmer’s transport time and cost, as well as training for farmers. That training includes 21st-century farming techniques from curing processes and sustainable agriculture — where farmers learn the benefits of using organic matter for compositing — to the use of polyculture and growing without pesticides.
Native Vanilla Today
Today, Native Vanilla is focused on the East Sepik province, assisting around 400 micro-farmers, with plans to double that number within a year. Their mission is simple: work with villages to establish a cooperative that is run by the local farmers, enabling the company to provide training and resources to the farmers through the cooperative.
Training is critical. In addition to education in sustainable growing methods, farmers receive training in the critical area of curing as well. “PNG farmers are hardworking and serious about growing vanilla,” says Dan. “A lot of them wanted more training on how to improve the quality of their vanilla. The higher and more consistent quality, the better price we can get them and at the same time grow the demand for PNG vanilla. We’ve done roadshows, where we sit down with village farmers and discuss their needs. We even created a standard called CHAMMS which stands for Consistent Vanilla Beans, High Vanillin Content, Aesthetically Pleasing, More Flavor, Mold Resistant, and Strong Aroma. We know that if we can get each of these items right, then PNG will become respected in the global market as an exporter of only the highest quality vanilla.”
Dan’s plan is working. Production in PNG is growing at a steady 40% year over year, with the company currently exporting to the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and South Africa. He plans to add an additional five countries within the year. “We have had such an amazing response and support from customers around the world with what we are doing,” Dan says. “PNG Vanilla is also world-class which makes selling vanilla easier!”
As for the future, Dan is understandably optimistic even though he understands he faces some tough challenges. “We’re up against some big global vanilla exporters that have a lot of backing at a government level… Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti. We exclusively sell PNG vanilla and have created our own PNG branded beans to export. There is more demand than supply, so we believe that vanilla can continue to support farmers for a long time to come. As for the challenges, if anyone is up to them, we are.”