How vanilla brings global communities together
Off Africa’s southeast coast, Madagascar – the world’s fourth largest island – is home to a stunning diversity of plants and animal species found nowhere else on Earth.
In fact, nearly 90 percent of all plants and animals native to Madagascar are endemic to the island. Among those valuable plants is vanilla, meriting the island the title of World Capital of Vanilla.
Today, Madagascar produces more than 90 percent of the world’s vanilla crop and vanilla farmers in the Sava region serve as the primary source of the premium vanilla used in our Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
In February 2013, Häagen-Dazs began working with vanilla supplier Virginia Dare, the international humanitarian organization CARE and Madagascar-based NGO Fanamby on a pilot to improve farmer incomes as well as the quality and securing the availability of vanilla.
The pilot, part of the brand’s long-term sustainable sourcing strategy, aligns with the General Mills’ mission of Nourishing Lives as well as its dedication to sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship throughout its supply chain.
But for Häagen-Dazs employees, this commitment goes beyond the mission and sustainability strategy. The plant Community Action Council (CAC) in Arras, France – home to one of our primary Häagen-Dazs production facilities – dedicates a portion of their philanthropy efforts each year to supporting the farmers and villagers of Belambo, Madagascar. From organizing book drives to collecting school supplies from local Arras area schools, the Arras CAC is determined to broaden the company’s impact on the Belambo community.
Taking their connection one step deeper, earlier this year, two employees of the Arras plant and representatives from Fanamby traveled to Belambo where the sweet aroma of vanilla can be smelled from miles away.
Isabelle Panckoucke, executive assistant at Häagen-Dazs’ Arras plant and leader of the Arras CAC organized the trip with several goals in mind.
The first was to deliver additional books and school supplies, and help organize the village’s first community library.
Isabelle notes that after building the shelving and organizing the books the Arras CAC had donated over the years, she shared best practices with the village council on running a community library.
“The goal of the library is to ensure all members of the community have access to the array of books,” says Isabelle. “The books are a precious treasure for them as they have previously had little access to books of any kind – let alone books that appeal to all ages and interests.”
The team also led a group of 100 volunteers from surrounding villages in digging the foundation for a new school building and lavatories on the Belambo school grounds. The school building was made possible through donations from the Arras CAC and the General Mills Foundation. Currently, the three existing school buildings serve more than 900 students in primary and secondary grades, making space extremely limited. The new building will accommodate 120 additional students from the surrounding area.
“Villagers of all ages, male and female came out to help us build the ground floor of the classroom with the support of Pascal Hochedé,” recountes Isabelle. “People were so excited and they wanted to be a part of the project.”
And finally, a nod to the crop that connects Arras and Belambo, the team also met with Malagasy vanilla farmers to discuss their planting, harvesting and curing process.
Over the last two years, a program supported by Häagen-Dazs and General Mills has provided access to training and education for hundreds of Malagasy farmers to help them produce a more sustainable and higher quality vanilla crop. As a result, these farmers are adding value to their crop and significantly increasing their incomes.
Among the most impactful moments of their trip, Isabelle says. “On the very first day, we arrived with samples of our Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream in hand. It was so exciting because for many of the farmers and villagers, that was the first time they ever tried ice cream – let alone saw how their hard work is used in our products.”
She reflects on her travels to Belambo as one of the greatest experiences of her lifetime. As an honorary member of the Belambo School Council, she follows up from France on the progress of the construction of the school building and needs or requests from the school director for additional books or supplies.
Isabelle and the Arras CAC are also working with a local primary school in Arras to establish a pen pal program with the students of Belambo.
“Rooted in an exchange of knowledge and vanilla crops, this is just the beginning of a beautiful relationship between two communities located across the globe,” she says.
This program is also a testament to General Mills’ belief that stable, long-term relationships with smallholder farmers can yield economic, environmental and social value for the company and our external partners alike.
Editor’s note: Over the course of the last two years, Häagen-Dazs has extended the vanilla sourcing program to Antananambo and Ampohibe, two communities in the southern section of the 200-mile long Sava region. Farmer associations in Belambo, Antananambo and Ampohibe represent 900 growers and their 3,600 family members. Combined, these sites have the capacity to fulfill Häagen-Dazs’vanilla sourcing needs, positioning us to meet our vanilla sustainability commitment.
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