It started innocently enough about 8 years ago when two LAFAZA co-founders, Nathaniel Delafield and Sarah Osterhoudt, joined the Peace Corps after completing grad school and spending several years in the U.S. workforce. At the time, they were looking for a new direction. They offered up a simple proposition to the world: “World, put us where you will. We are ready to get to work!” They had no idea where they would end up or what was in store for them. A leap of faith is just that, so they leapt.
As it turns out, almost halfway around the world a small group of vanilla and clove growers in Madagascar were making a similar leap of faith about a much more serious matter. Their rural farming communities were suffering from a lack of basic resources such as medicine, educational materials, and market access for their products. With the help of a local non-profit organization, the farmers contacted Peace Corps to request volunteer assistance. They did not know what to expect and had no idea who, if anyone, would show up. There wasn’t even phone service within 200 miles. But a leap of faith is just that, so they leapt.
The vanilla market had recently crashed, and prices were down over 90 percent from previous years. Farmers in the region were unable to connect with international markets, and even Madagascar export markets had to be accessed through multiple intermediaries offering below-market prices. The local cultivation and curing skills were exceptional, the agroforestry systems used by farmers in the region almost unbelievably lush and complex. The vanilla beans were intoxicating in their flavor and aroma. How could local growers be receiving such low prices? There had to be a better model, but surprisingly, there wasn’t. Yet.
After many long conversations with farmers, a business concept was formed to create a direct-trade model based on fair trade principles that would bridge between local cooperatives in Madagascar and gourmet markets in the U.S. A small vanilla bean sample made its way to Oakland, California to LAFAZA co-founder James Delafield, who had been working for years in the specialty food industry. He entered it into a blind test by a major Bay Area chocolate maker that had formed a panel of experts to review ingredients. The sample was selected as their top choice among vanillas from around the world, and they asked how to get more. LAFAZA was born.
Our company has grown from its original village-level roots, but we remain grounded in three founding principles: to create sustainable, direct supply chains that protect the environment; to follow fair trade practices that support farmer livelihoods; and to only offer the highest-quality natural products to our customers. We call it our “Triple-F” bottom line – to support Forests, Farmers, and of course, deliver great Flavors! LAFAZA’s team is proud of its work on both continents as a leader and innovator in this field, and we have many more delicious projects in store for the future.