Spices Value Chain: Adding Flavour to the Spices Supply Chain

With the aim of promoting farm-to-fork food supply chain traceability, Farmforce’s technology is resolving the production problems associated with the most appetising spices for consumers: Vanilla, black pepper, chilies, cinnamon, and herbs.

In this post, we’ll give you some hints on their value chain and how our advanced food’s traceability software provides solutions to help improve its visibility and sustainability.

Farming and Processing

Except for vanilla, all other above-mentioned spices fall under the horticultural category. However, the farming stage will be crop-dependent. 

For instance, black pepper comes from a vine (Piper nigrum) clinging around a pole. These bear green cherries (a.k.a. peppercorns) which turn red once ripe. Black pepper production happens in tropical climates like Vietnam, one of the top exporters. Typically, you find black pepper vines in coffee plantations. Red pepper, or chili if you like, shoots from a different vine (Capsicum annuum). China is by far the world’s largest grower of this famously hot fruit. Herbs like oregano and sage are also standard field crops. Instead, things get a bit different for cinnamon, which is basically the bark of the homonymous tree.

In terms of processing, you generally have three steps: Drying, grinding, and sterilisation. The latter step aims at removing bacteria, pathogens, and other food-borne diseases and can be effectively done through steam without using any chemicals. It’s also worth mentioning that cinnamon is not subjected to any grinding as it’s usually sold as sticks rather than as a powder.

The Farmforce Spicy Recipe

You can check our post on cocoa beans to have an in-depth description of how our supply chain management software as a service (SaaS) works. However, its structure doesn’t change much when you consider the out-growers scheme for spices’ export. 

In short, smallholder farmers harvest spices and deliver them to the exporter site. Here, they process the raw spices and pack them into 20 to 50 Kg bags. This step marks the end of the spices value chain’s first mile. 

So, let’s zero in on what’s the core of our software application for small farm management. As mentioned for other crops, to ensure traceability in the food supply chain, our tech stores a comprehensive set of farmer-related data in one place:

  • Personal information, including family members. This is helpful to spot any minor engaged in child labour. 
  • Field maps: Spices importer can overlay these with the Global Forest Watch (GFW) areas to ensure farming is deforestation-free
  • Quotas (i.e., allocation of spices farmers can sell): Purchasing clerks at the export site check these against the number of spices delivered by each farmer. Doing so, ensure no untracked spices penetrate the market.

Certifications and Training

Using our agricultural supply chain software (to capture planting dates, use of fertilizers, field mapping, crop inspections, etc.), and storing this data safely and in one place, eases the process by which a certain crop and organization may receive internationally recognized certifications.

Importers such as Subati and The Development Fund of Norway have seen the power of Farmforce in action:

  • Subati spent 1.5 years in extensive application, audit, and quality control processes to receive certifications. They proved their operations adhered to the highest levels of food safety, staff training, and responsible input use with our robust and bush-proof traceability system.
  • The Development Fund of Norway has seen the living income of farmer’s multipled by two since implementing Farmforce! Also of note, their productivity of pepper has increased by 250%.

How Farmforce Handles the Not-So-Plain Vanilla Supply Chain

Vanilla is a special one. In fact, both its farming and processing are different from those related to horticultural spices.

Belonging to the orchids family, vanilla grows as a clinging vine (Vanilla Planifolia) and its farming occurs in tropical countries like Madagascar and Indonesia, which are two of the leading producers. You may need to wait up to 3 years before flowers start blooming. Then, after pollinating them, it will take 10 more months for the fruit (i.e., vanilla beans-containing pods) to reach full maturity.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, just behind saffron. This is because of its labor-intensive production, which entails a spicier type of supply chain. 

Farming

Vanilla cultivation includes unique growing activities which horticultural spices don’t require. In particular, you have the following practices:

  • Mulching: Straight after planting, you spread a layer of organic matter (e.g., dried leaves) on the topsoil around the vanilla plants. Besides providing nutrients for the plant, mulch limits weed growth.
  • Pollination: Unless you’re in Mexico, where native Vanilla Planifolia is pollinated by bees, you need skillful farmers to pollinate vanilla flowers by hand. But timing is key. Pollination typically occurs between October and January and the optimal time of the day seems to be between 11 a.m. and 12 noon. Our supply chain visibility software lets our customers monitor pollination times. Also, we record the number of pollinated flowers per plant to figure out the crop yield.
  • Nipping: This refers to the removal of excess flower buds to leave space for new pods to sprout.

Processing and Grading

After being harvested by our digitised farmers, yellowy-green pods are bagged and bar-coded before moving to the processing stage. Just like for coffee cherries, at this point, you lose the farmer-level agriculture traceability for vanilla beans as they’re mixed. It’s time for beans to go through a curing process, including the following steps:

  • Blanching: This is basically a thermal shock. You dip beans into the water at a temperature of 60 C for a few minutes. When you see an oily layer forming on the water surface, it’s time to pull the beans out. The heat stops the ripening process and releases enzymes. These, in turn, catalyse the production of vanillin, which is the compound giving beans their characteristic aroma.
  • Sweating: You then transfer the blanched beans to a so-called sweat box, where they’re wrapped with wool blankets to retain heat and steam. As beans sweat, their flavour develops further. 
  • Drying: After sweating for about 48 h, you sun-dry the now brownish beans on racks until reaching an optimal moisture content of around 25-30%. This normally takes up to 2 weeks.
  • Dulcis in fundo, the sweet vanilla beans are graded based on their appearance and moisture content. To be more specific, grade A beans have a higher moisture content and are darker than grade B/C beans. The latter is further processed to make vanilla extracts. Instead, as for grade A beans, you can have an A-2 type, which you can send to pastry chefs, and an A-1 kind which can be used by companies to craft flavourings.

The Sustainability Journey

Thanks to our mobile-based multi-functional small-farm management software, MNC’s can track growers’ activities and advise them on how to handle food supply chain risks such as pests and diseases, map fields, track yields, and improve the quality of life for the farmer. With these activities and more individualised solutions by Farmforce, companies large and small are able to reach their Environment Sustainability Goals and adhere to US and EU laws both present and future. We’re proud of the results achieved so far.

As our activity within spices continues to grow, we will publish case studies within the spices supply chain. To adhere to our own transparency, we routinely publish insights to provide even more facts and figures towards empowering the industry to improve (and prove) its sustainability and traceability. These concerns are our specialty, and the actions consumers are eager to see companies address.