By Judy Pickens
Special to West Seattle Blog
West Seattle and the east African nation of Uganda were first connected by books and are now also connected by vanilla and a premium ice cream just introduced by Husky Deli.
In 2017, Alina Guyon’s Libraries 4 All project took her to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda, where she and her mother, Sheryl, built a small library
Sheryl also brought back a few kilos of premium vanilla beans and an intriguing question: Could vanilla raise area farmers out of abject poverty and help educate their children?
She has a trained eye for such potential. Sheryl was an entrepreneur from an early age and is working with Seattle’s All the Sky Foundation to aid under-represented populations, with a particular interest in gender equity.
“Jobs in Uganda are few and far between and we were on alert for a way we might help refugees support their families,” she said. “After reading that the climate In the Kampala area is perfect for growing vanilla, I had to learn more.”
Bakers and other vanilla users know that a worldwide shortage of the flavoring has caused the price to soar. Extract from beans grown in Madagascar (the world’s principal supplier) retail for as much as $8/oz. Because each bean is so precious, growers keep field locations a secret and employ armed guards to protect their crop.
Uganda’s tropical climate and fertile soil are perfect for growing the Vanilla planifolia orchid. Uganda farmers plant a species of short tree as scaffolding for their vanilla vines and pollinate the flowers by hand. As the beans mature, they pick each by hand just as it begins to turn brown.
Through a chain of connections, Sheryl was able to learn that a wholesaler typically buys a farmer’s entire crop, then cures the beans and sells the best ones on the whole-bean market and the rest to a processor to refine into extract. She became even more convinced that she could develop the product into a “social” business that benefits those who labor the most.
“The vanilla fields are very near the refugee camp, so refugees can get beans directly from the farmers and do the packaging and paperwork needed to export them here where I can get them to a premium market,” Sheryl explained. “The farmers and refugees will profit from bulk sales and retail profits will go back to a Ugandan non-profit to pay school fees for refugee children.”
This spring, Husky Deli owner Jack Miller agreed to give “Mukono Super Vanilla” ice cream its world premiere. (The name comes from the district where the most flavorful vanilla is grown.) He’s making just 15 half-gallons at a time using Sheryl’s extract and seeds from 15 beans. If West Seattleites like what they taste, Mukono Super Vanilla will continue in the ice-cream case as the market for these “super” beans widens.