Friday, 8 March 2013

Lulu Sturdy of Ndali Vanilla

Today is international Women's Day.

I have written a piece about a woman who has inspired me .. but I want to sleep on it before I post.  So if you can bear with me for a day  I will tell you all about the most incredible person who founded the Ndali Vanilla cooperative.

I've seen Lulu's amazing ability to empower the people around her to change their lives. 

Wednesday 13th March 2012 

Oh It's been full on for a few days now. It has taken me a a while to get back to my computer. 

Yesterday I was making banana muffins and chatting to the people on the sourdough course about the importance of buying fairtrade bananas whilst showing them how to use the new Fairtrade Ndali vanilla powder.

I went to bed late and dreamed of smoke mingling with the heady smell of vanilla and I can hear the voices of the Ugandan farmers and their children laughing.  Now I am awake.

Right now it’s 5 am.  I can’t go back to sleep despite my eyeballs hurting. I am so tired but I can never sleep well until I have done what I set out to do.  It has always been this way.  At times I have considered it a dammed curse, and you would think that I would stop setting myself things that I must do, but it doesn’t work like that.  A task will set itself in my mind and I must finish it, and I set to telling a story on international woman’s day about a person who has changed not just my life, but hundreds of lives.  She is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. It is now five days later and I must finish writing about Lulu Sturdy of NdaliVanilla or my words will stay in my head and stop me from sleeping.

I was writing the Vanilla chapter two years ago for my recipe book Prepped when I contacted Lulu and I asked if she might send me a bundle of Vanilla to use for the recipes and I would send back the photographs in return.   The vanilla that arrived was exquisite. Dark plump sweet and rich, this wasn’t like any kind of vanilla I’d seem before.  It is the most intense vanilla I had ever had with complex notes of liquorish, caramel and a whisper of smokiness.

I was thrilled that she sent such a lovely bundle. I had changed direction and returned to food as a career, with three young children and started at the bottom of the heap again. I‘d been remindedthat I was an unknown in no uncertain terms and a kindness to someone setting out on a journey is never forgotten.

Green Vanilla Beans are a cash crop. 
Over time I discovered that Lulu had turned to vanilla as a product that grew well on the rich loamy soil of the plantation she inherited unexpectedly in her late twenties. I mentioned if I could ever help with anything to ask.  Then in May last year Lulu asked for some advice on social media and invited me to visit her in Uganda when the vanilla was being harvested. I’m not sure that many husbands who come home from work at night and sit down for supper expect to be asked if he can stay at home and look after the three little ones whilst the wife flies off to West Uganda to harvest vanilla, but I am married to a man who is happy for me to be who I am.  Luckily I married a man who understands me and so in June I found myself on my way to Uganda.

I was so nervous about getting on a plane to going on my own.  I had very little confidence travelling alone.  I’m not sure where I left if but somewhere between getting married and having children I had simply lost me.  But from the moment I landed it was as though I could feel another heartbeat.  Uganda is alive.  I’ve heard others tell of this feeling in Africa.

The thing that stuck me the most when I first saw Lulu was that she has the most intense blue eyes. I knew she had had a huge challenge as a young furniture maker finding herself with such an inheritance, but she calls is Serendipity, and to keep the estate she started the Ndali Fairtrade Vanilla Company.  Easy words to read but I hadn’t really processed what starting to grow vanilla from scratch in Uganda actually involved, let alone managing to get it back to the UK and for wale in the supermarkets.  I found out just what an amazing person she as I spent the next week with Lulu meeting the farmers finding out more about the processing.

It was in that week that I got to understand how our momentary decisions affect the lives of others, and I saw how farmers not only become custodians of the land they farm through sustainable practices, but I also the reality of peoples lives being changed though being paid a fair price.   It is Lulu, who has facilitated this.  It is the actions of Lulu that has literally empowered the people.

You see in the UK most business men and women have first and foremost a commercial aspect to them. But somehow Ndali is much more than this.  It is not a cold-hearted capitalist business.  Yes Ndali buys fairtrade vanilla and processes it, but Ndali is a family.  Lulu runs the business like a mother.  She nurturing, loving and fair and she has an instinct, not to do things for people, but to facilitate them and so enabling them to be doing the best for themselves. She is strict sometimes and seriously fun other times.   The commercial aspect of actually selling these beautiful pods is simply what enables Lulu to do this. Things have not always been straightforward for Lulu.  Many of the challenges that she has faced over the past 12 years would have sent most people scurrying back to the safely of the UK, but Lulu is an extraordinary person. It’s difficult to describe Lulu’s attitude to life in words but she has an understanding and acceptance of herself and the world that seems to give her a quiet strength, far beyond anyone else’s that I have ever met.

When the new machine to grind the very best Vanilla pods into fine crystals arrived everyone was really excited.  You see there was more than one reason to celebrate this machine.  The powder is a new process …  but more than that one of the reasons that the vanilla is so exquisite is that the farmers now have the confidence to leave the pods to take longer to ripen, through being part of the cooperative.  Before the cooperative the famers cash crop of vanilla was an easy target for gangs to rob, and so they would harvest the barely ripe vanilla early  to secure their crop.

Now the Vanillin crystals literally explode out of the pod, and so Lulu invented the Ndali Vanilla powder, which uses the whole of the pod.  She started off grinding them using a coffee grinder in her kitchen to produce what can only be described as the champagne and truffle equivalent of vanilla. It’s now available in Waitrose priced at £5:99.  One tsp is the equivalent on one pod.  Which brings me back to my muffins.

It’s easy to forget that we all have the ability to make a difference in the world. Life can take over and it’s easy to loose what is essentially a really child like belief that things should be fair in life.  But what I really love in the end is that now I am home again Lulu carries on empowering people, because by using her vanilla this empowers me to change the world every time I bake a cake too, and I am part of the movement to change the world one bite at a time.

Ndali Vanilla Powder is available at Waitrose.  


  1. Inspiring post. I'm one of the world's worst I'm mightily impressed with your lone journey to Uganda. It looks as though it was certainly worthwhile.Can't wait to buy some Vanilla Powder from Waitrose when I next go to England.

  2. A truly inspiring lady. Through telling her story you bring a product to life, so much more than thinking of a commercial farm and machinery. I had not really thought about how vanilla was grown until your trip. Your writing is encouraging us to change our consumer habits.

  3. Some people are quite amazing - I couldn't see myself doing anything like this but certainly admire it in other people. I don't think I can remember seeing fresh vanilla pods. Waitrose here I come when next in the UK.


If you are reading my blog I must warn you that I am not impartial. I want to influence you. I want to make you stop for just a moment and consider the effect of a lifetime of seemingly insignificant decisions and how making small delicious choices can change the world.

I believe that we can change the world one bite at a time.

It's a delicious revolution.