Monday, December 10, 2012

All about cloves (and what my work is here)

It’s December in Vangaindrano, which means that the lychee trees are dripping with strawberry-red bunches of fruit, piles of blushing-pink mangoes line the cobblestone market road, and the streets are richly perfumed with the scent of cloves, a crop that my town and the surrounding areas are famous for.  Right now I’m sitting in the office of my counterpart agency, COLDIS, and on the other side of the wall is there stockpile of local cloves bought recently from the countryside towns, awaiting their trip to the warehouse in Manakara. Every deep inhale brings the heady aroma of cloves, and makes it feel a little bit like Christmas, even if it is 95 degrees out.

Cloves are one of the more famous examples, along with vanilla, cocoa and coffee, of a cash crop that flourishes in Madagascar. The best cloves in the world are said to come from Madagascar and Zanzibar, although they are widely grown in Indonesia as well. My counterpart agency here in Madagascar is an organization called COLDIS, which works with collectives of smallholder farmers to purchase their spices and export them internationally. COLDIS buys pepper and ginger as well as cloves, but it’s the latter that is their primary focus. The name of the organization stands for “collect and distribute”, and when you lok at the challenges of being a smallholder farmer in rural Madagascar, you’ll understand the importance of what they are doing.

First of all, most small-scale spice farmers in Madagascar live in rural areas and are fairly poor. They usually farm rice and other subsistence crops, in addition to growing cloves (or other spices), which are harvested once a year around October or November. Cloves do well in coastal regions, so the southeast (around Vangaindrano) and the northeast (around Fenerive Est) are where most of them are grown in Madagascar. Unfortunately, the coastal areas are also the most susceptible to cyclone damage, and therefore it’s where a lot of rural poverty is concentrated. In addition, the roads are incredibly bad when you’re going outside of a major town like Vangaindrano, and when you factor in cyclone-season rains and the fact that none of these farmers can afford to own a car, let alone the gas to run it, then you understand the infratructure challenges that exist here. So what COLDIS does is unique and helpful: they drive their trucks out to the countryside towns where the rural collectives of spice farmers are located, thereby giving market access to these farmers. They can sell their spices without having to travel very far, or spend a lot of money on taxi-brousse transport. Then, once COLDIS has collected cloves from all of the towns, they are sorted, processed, and packaged in the Manakara warehouse for distribution, via the cargo port in Tamatave, for export to clients in Europe.

Triage workers sorting cloves in Manakara

Bags of cloves bound for an export client in Rotterdam

The 4 different types of cloves: CG3, which is the "creme de la creme", baby cloves, stems, and griffes.

Although I had originally wanted to work with Madagascar vanilla, because of my food background, I was still really excited when I got my work assignment and learned that my project would involve spice farmers. It’s taken some time to figure out exactly what my work with COLDIS will be, but I’ve recently been assigned a project that I’m really excited about: I’ll be helping implement a sustainability program with the clove farmers around Vangaindrano so that the cloves from here can be marked as “sustainable”. COLDIS wants to ascribe to the standards set forth by the Sustainable Spices Intiative, which is a large-scale initiative that has been adopted by most of the major players in the spice industry-- including heavyweights like McCormick & Co. “Sustainability” is certainly a buzzword these days, but what does this actually mean, you may ask: in a nutshell, it means adopting a variety of changes that involve training the farmers on harvest techniques and environmental stewardship, finding farmers who want to plant new trees and ensuring that 15,000 new trees are planted, and working with the laborers in Manakara to ensure they’re healthy and treated fairly, among other things. These standards are a win-win for all parties because they will ensure a continued harvest for the small farmers, an equitable work environment for the Manakara laborers, and a healthy export market for COLDIS in Europe and America, where consumer demand calls for more and more food products to be certified as sustainable.

All in all, I’m excited about the possibilities that this project offers for the farmers, as well as COLDIS. I’m also thrilled to have been given the responsibility to project-manage this on the local level. Although it’s been frustrating trying to get this off the ground, I’m hopeful that once it kicks off it will keep me busy and challenged. And who knows, perhaps this will lead to a post-Peace Corps career in the global spice trade! I’ll leave you with a recipe using cloves that comes from a former volunteer, which is included in the Peace Corps Madagascar cookbook that I’m helping to edit. This makes a wonderful holiday gift or contribution to a holiday party.

Christmas Rum
1 large bottle light rum
1-2 cinnamon sticks
3 vanilla beans
Small handful whole cloves
Small piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
2-3 whole nutmeg

Open the rum and drink (or pour out!) about ¼ cup worth. Place the spices in the bottle, recap, and give it a shake. Let sit in a cool, dark place for several weeks or months, until rum is spiced and fragrant and has turned caramel in color. If giving as a gift, pour into a decorative bottle along with the spices, and add a little gift tag.


  1. Thanks for the background on how cloves make it from the farm to the int'l market. But I was wondering how do they grow? Do they come from trees or bushes? How long does it take to produce a mature clove, etc?

    I will share the rum recipe with my local food preservation group that dabbles in liqueurs, mostly with fruits native to our area in the Finger Lakes region of NYS.

    Best of luck with your work with COLDIS. Making those farm to table connections for farmers is so important, esp. given the logistical obstacles you mentioned.

  2. Hi Katie, thanks for reading and commenting. Cloves grow on trees, and I'm embarrassed to realize that I don't know for certain how long it takes to produce a mature clove. It's an annual crop, and what I do know is that one of the unsustainable harvesting techniques that the farmers often use is to simply hack off all the tree branches in order to make harvesting easier. This makes the following year's harvest not as abundant, because the tree has to regrow its branches. So, that's one of the practices that my project will work to end.

    Enjoy the rum recipe! I bet it would be delicious along with some Finger Lakes apples thrown in. This type of rum concoction is called "rhum arrangee" here in Madagascar. It's very popular and you'll see all different kinds of it--mango, lychee, pineapple, vanilla, etc etc... they use all the local produce to make different flavors of rums.

  3. Hi Emily,

    I'm glad to hear that your project will let farmers know that cutting branches reduces harvests. Here in NYS a couple of years ago, I attended a NOFA-NY (organic farmers)fruit tree growers workshop and the presenter, Lee Reich, told us something interesting about pruning. He said that a pruned tree loses total volume for its lifetime, despite growing back. He wasn't recommending no pruning, but he was making the point that a tree never fully recovers from a loss of branches.

    Here's a link to Reich's book, if you're interested. It's an amazingly complete work and he takes gorgeous photos of his plantings as well.

    And thanks for the background on rhum arrangee.

    -- Kate