New industry, new hope

Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron. Do you know that it grows well in the Philippines? I first saw the vanilla plant in a small café in Ubod, Bali. It is actually an orchid vine.

Vanilla is quite expensive, which reached a high of $600 per kilo in 2018. Why is it expensive? Vanilla takes three to four years to mature and flower. It only flowers for a day, and each flower has to be hand pollinated in the morning before noon to produce beans. When the vanilla pods’ tips turn yellow, usually nine months after pollination, it is ready for harvesting. If picked too early, the vanillin levels will not be high enough. Then the curing and processing start to transform this scentless pod to the sweet vanilla aroma, which may take another three to six months.

As the real vanilla extract is expensive and in high demand, the substitute is the much cheaper synthetic vanilla but not with the same health benefits. Vanilla is a popular flavoring in sweet desserts and drinks such as ice cream, smoothies, soups baked goods.

Some of the health benefits of real vanilla are:

• It can be used as a sugar substitute to help curb sugar intake, reduce high blood glucose, and improve a healthy lifestyle.

• Smelling of vanilla has a calming effect on newborns and adults, lessening newborn crying and providing relief to sleep apnea for adults.

• The alcohol in vanilla can numb toothache pain; antioxidants provide healing effects.

The Vanilla Industry Development Association (VIDA) has recently been incorporated with President Basil Bolinao preparing the road map with full support from Dr. Rey Lantin, Pabs Villegas, Joji Lim, Maila Toreja, Toto Barcelona, and the Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Science and Technology (DoST), and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). The objective is to make vanilla a new sustaining industry in the Philippines starting with the right foundation. The good news is that vanilla is now part of the government’s list of high-value crops. It is the intention for vanilla to be an additional income stream for existing farms.

It is encouraging that inquiries from abroad are already coming through the DA, and we have not even started producing. The target, if one starts planting in January 2023, is that the vanilla vines will start flowering by January 2026 and harvesting nine months after, or October 2026, plus another three to six months of curing and processing into the second or third quarter of 2027. Excitedly, looking forward to a new Philippine vanilla industry!

I met Gila, wife of the Israeli ambassador to the Philippines upon the invitation of “Bamboo Queen” Kay Jimenez together with “Moringa Queen” Bernie Estrella Arellano. I’m impressed with Israel — how a small country with a large desert area can transform to be a rich producing country, exporting fruits and vegetables. The Philippines, with its rich natural resources, and the sun shining practically all year round, (probably the very same reason we take it for granted), can certainly learn a lot from Israel, known for its modern and innovative agriculture.

And the good news is that Israeli Ambassador Ilan Fluss “is offering to help the Philippines move from traditional subsistence farming to modern smart agriculture based in agronomy, science, technology, economics and sustainability.”

Talking to Gila, a researcher by heart and profession, about agriculture, she spoke like a veteran but modern farmer. Israel takes a science-based approach and considers farming a business. So, every input must result in an output. Take water, a scarce resource. Research and experiment on every detail are done, such as the quantity, the time of day, how frequently, the nutrients, the best channel, etc. No wonder they are very productive. We can certainly learn a lot from the Israel experts, we need to make sure we follow and implement!

Truly refreshing to spend time with Gila, who first lived in the Philippines 27 years ago, the couple’s first assignment. The Philippines, with a rich history with Israel, is significant and memorable in their lives but more so as this is where their second son was born, and “their third son was made.” They love the Philippines and want to “make a difference” (MAD) in this second assignment.

Christmas is coming and the New Year is near. Despite headwinds, and challenges we may face, we have always overcome. Looking forward to new hope and the new year!


Flor G. Tarriela is the former chairman of Philippine National Bank. She is a former Finance undersecretary and the first Filipina vice-president of Citibank N.A. She is a trustee of FINEX and an ICD fellow. A gardener and an environmentalist, she established Flor’s Garden in Antipolo.