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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Success story of a Sabah vanilla farmer

The Borneo Post (Sabah)
1 Mar 2015

By Nancy LaiThe vanilla plant growing in the farm.

KOTA KINABALU: A sweet scent permeates the air, becoming stronger as we walked towards a patch of green plants in Kinarut.

Here, we found a one-acre plot that has been planted with vanilla orchids which produce beans that are later gathered and processed into the second most expensive spice after saffron -- the vanilla bean.

Vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacturing and aromatherapy, and the cured beans are highly sought after worldwide.

This vanilla farm belongs to a local entrepreneur, Leo Komuji, who started developing it i n 2008.

The 2,000 odd vanilla plants he has in the farm started flowering four years later and this year is the third time the plants have bloomed.

Leo said that the potential for vanilla farming in Sabah is good, as managing the plant is not difficult. It is also a good way to utilise idle lands as the returns are lucrative.

The plant flowers in April and May, which would be the time when it becomes labour intensive as the f lowers have to be hand pollinated because we do not have the right insects in Sabah to do so, Leo said.

“I only have one worker to look after this one-acre plantation as the plants are quite easy to take care of. The busiest time for us is during flowering season which is in April and May as we do the pollination by hand.

“During these two months, the flowers bloom one by one and not together at one time so we have to conduct daily checks to do the pollination. This is also done from 4am to 9am only as that is the time the flowers bloom,” he said.

They must also ensure that the plants are under 75 per cent shade and 25 per cent sunlight and that the roots are damp, not wet, otherwise rot will set in.

Leo, who was met at his farm, has achieved a lot since 2008 as he is now producing cured vanilla beans that are sought after by ice cream manufacturers in Peninsular Malaysia and specialized grocery outlets in Sabah.

“An ice manufacturer from Peninsular Malaysia has approached me. Pick and Pay, a local grocery store has also approached me. I have given some samples to a local soap maker and have had enquiries from bakery suppliers,” he said.

Leo disclosed that he is selling Grade B vanilla beans at RM5 each and RM8 each for beans of the Grade A quality.

According to him, imported vanilla beans can cost up to RM20 each. He opined that the quality between local and imported vanilla is the same as he has compared the imported ones with the ones he produced.

On why he ventured into vanilla farming, Leo said that he wanted to make use of his idle land in his home village.

“If we work the land, we can get results in a year or two… we just need to invest in it,” he stressed.

He also disclosed that in the past, KPD was very active in promoting vanilla farming.

“At one stage I think more than 300 participants attended the courses conducted by KPD but at the end of the day they gave up because of insufficient support.

“I was one of the participants and had persevered till today where I can show the people the end results, that this can be done here and the potential is there. For marketing is very easy because there is no boundary.

“We can sell online and people throughout the world can see our products. People will come to us,” he said.

Leo is also looking towards assisting his fellow villagers who have idle land and are interested to plant the vanilla orchid.

“I am also supplying and selling per plant cuttings at RM10. The main reason why I am doing this is so that people can see that it is locally planted,” he said.

On the process of curing vanilla beans, Leo explained that after pollination, the beans will start forming and be ready for harvest by the end of November or early December. Harvesting is done till

The potential for vanilla farming in Sabah is good, as managing the plant is not difficult. It is also a good way to utilise idle lands as the returns are lucrative.

January and then the cycle starts all over again in April.

His 2,000 plants can now produce up to 800 grams of vanilla beans.

“There are three stages in the processing of the beans, f irst is called ‘killing’. Here we dip the beans in hot water for five minutes. After that, we put it in a container overnight for the ‘sweating’ process. The following day we dry it in the sun but only around 11 am to about 2 pm when the sun is at its hottest. This happens for seven days.

“At night, we wrap the beans in cloth and put it in a cooler box for the sweating process. This is also done for a week and we alternate between drying in the sun during the day and sweating it at night.

“From this process the vanilla aroma will be produced. If we do not do it this way, the aroma will not be strong. After that the beans will be spread out in a room for a month of slow drying process. During this time, the remaining oils within the beans will be dispersed.

“After one month, we then pack the beans for three months and that is when the magic happens, the smell will intensify and the bean will become pliant. This is the end product that is sought after,” he said.

According to Leo, to ensure that the beans produced are of Grade A and Grade B quality, they will ensure that there are only between 12 to 15 beans in a bunch as it grows. More beans will result in smaller sized beans.

“With 12 to 15 beans only, we may be able to get Grade A bean which is more than seven inches long. The better the grade the higher the price,” he pointed out.

Leo added that the farm is totally organic as the fertilizers used on his plants are made out of goat dung and compost from the pruned plants.

On his future plans, Leo said that he wants to expand his farm and also to promote vanilla farming to fellow villagers. He will then in turn purchase the beans they produce to cure into dried beans.

“If they plant but do not know how to process it, then it will be a waste,” he said.

Those interested to know more about Leo and his farm can contact him through My Kebun Vanilla at Kinarut page in Facebook.

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