From just outside Kansas City, SAVA Trading Co., so named for the Sava region of Madagascar from which it sources its vanilla beans, is curating high-quality vanilla and cultivating change among the Malagasy people. Founders Kurtis and Holly Jones lived in Sambava, Madagascar, for two years. As they adapted to the culture and learned the local language, they began building relationships with the Malagasy, and although they had to relocate in 2014 due to personal reasons, they left their hearts behind. To maintain their connection to that special place while living in Kearney, Missouri, the husband-and-wife team joined forces with farmers from the remote region of the island nation to start a business that would empower their community and provide consumers stateside with direct-trade vanilla.
Initially, why did you go to Madagascar, and what led you to start SAVA Trading Co.? We believe it’s a privilege to live our lives for others. We chose to live in Sambava, [Madagascar], specifically, because it is such an isolated area; it’s considered “the island on the island” because it’s so difficult to get to and there was no written language in the local dialect nor access to the gospel. –Kurtis Jones We had no intention of ever starting a vanilla business – although approximately 80 percent of the world’s vanilla does come from the region we were living in; we simply wanted to love the Malagasy people well. So when we had to leave abruptly, we sought out a way to still have a positive impact on their lives, to empower and encourage them. –Holly Jones
How did you learn enough about vanilla to start SAVA Trading Co.? When we went into villages to teach or dig wells, everyone was either harvesting or drying vanilla, depending on the season, and so we naturally learned about it. Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid, which is a vine-like plant native to Mexico. That vine takes three years to produce a flower and when that flower opens, you have 12 hours to pollinate it. In other parts of the world, there’s a bee that naturally pollinates the flower, but it hasn’t been introduced to Madagascar, so the pollination process is done by hand on the island. The farmers take a thorn and press the male and female part of the orchid together, and nine months later, a bean forms. –H.J.
It’s an extremely labor-intensive process, and when you think about the fact that one flower produces one bean, it gives you a new appreciation of vanilla. –K.J.
What separates SAVA Trading Co. from other vanilla producers? Firstly, the climate in Madagascar is perfect for growing vanilla, and the Malagasy farmers’ curing process is unique to the island, which distinguishes their product, and in turn, our products, from other vanilla. –K.J.
A Malagasy farmer’s quality of life drastically improves or worsens depending on the price of vanilla: Right now, the price is approximately five times higher than it has been in years. It’s a bittersweet turn of events. While a roaring vanilla trade is great for the country’s economy, it has also sparked greed, vanilla theft and violence. The farmers are sleeping in their fields to protect their crops. Not only does it take an unbelievable amount of work to pollinate the flowers and procure the vanilla beans, but now farmers are dealing with this stress and worry, as well. They’re being tempted to pick their beans early, but that decreases the quality of the vanilla – the bean is ready just before it rots, when it has the highest concentration of vanillin. Because we import our beans directly from our Malagasy friend, Dylan – we trust him and he trusts us – we know our beans have had time to mature on the vine. It’s our relationship with him and all the farmers that allows us to cut out the middlemen that usually take away from farmers’ profits and integrity. We’re able to pay farmers above market value and still offer the best quality vanilla at a reasonable price to our customers here in the U.S. –H.J.
SAVA Trading Co. sells vanilla extract and whole beans; visit savatradingco.com to see all its available products.