As health issues continue to drive global product innovations, East Africa has gained a remarkable new market for a sweetener that works for diabetics and offers sweetness of taste without the high calories of sugar. The plant stevia is now being adopted as a sweetener by soft drink companies globally.
Commonly known as "sweetleaf" or "sugarleaf," stevia's leaves have a natural sweetness 30 to 45 times that of regular sugar. Giant soft drink companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola, Nestle and Unilever have even moved to introduce stevia into some of their drinks opening a huge demand for exports from East Africa.
A native herb of Paraguay in South America, the stevia plant grows well in Kenya, and was given approval for growth as a local crop just two years ago by the National Environment Management Authority.
Farmers were initially skeptical about the prospects for the crop, but already Kenya’s stevia exports have reached Sh500m.
Stevia was introduced to farmers in the larger Molo District by the Network for Ecofarming in Africa (Necofa), a community-based NGO working with rural small scale farmers. Having started with a demonstration plot, NECOFA explained the cultivation benefit and market for the plant.
“Skepticism emanated from the fact that farmers have interacted with people who come to them and tell them to grow a certain crop, which they would buy from them and export, and promises of good fortunes, so farmers have become wary of adapting to new things because they have been cheated before,” said Jane Karanja the Program coordinator with NECOFA.
But with this crop, the farmers have also been drying the leaves themselves and using the juice as a sweetener in their tea, which ahs meant they have cushioned themselves from the prohibitive sugar prices affecting the rest of the country.
The dried leaves are also processed into powder, to be used as a substitute for sugar.
Processors argue that a tablespoon of stevia is equivalent to approximately a cup of sugar. Stevia consists of 10-12 per cent stevioside, a component that can be extracted as liquid concentrate to be used directly in soft drinks and beverages.
The leaves are also being used in chocolates and candies, not only to meet the requirement of diabetic and health conscious consumers, but also because does not cause tooth decay. Stevia even possesses an antimicrobial property meaning it can be used in all the sweets that children are fond of.
“A mere fragment of the leaf is enough to sweeten the mouth for an hour. So stevia can also be used in the manufacture of chewing gums, mints and mouth refreshers,” said Jane.
The most important aspect of stevia is the leaf, which is harvested after 3 months, dried and grinded into a powder that forms the basis of the sweeteners.
Though NECOFA said it currently has 2 farmer groups of 55 members, but the demand to farm the crop has been overwhelming. They have been forced to limit the number in order to give quality advice to farmers from planting to harvest and marketing.
The plant, which grows optimally in upland areas with a sub-tropical climate, is ideal for growing in Kenya. It requires lightly textured, well-drained soil, to which organic matter has been added, and needs only a modest investment in fertilizer and water, during 3 months of careful tending before the farmer can harvest the leaves.
The leaves can grow at least three times a year and NECOFA encourages farmers to use at least ¼ of an acre if they are to reap the benefit. Half an acre of land can requires 15,000 plants with spacing of 25x40 cm in a raised bed system that can produce 500kg of stevia leaves selling at an average Sh2300 per kilo, at current exchange rates, meaning in one harvest a farmer gets a return of Sh1.15m.
NECOFA has also been actively involved in sourcing market for farmers, predominantly as exports.
Due to the unavailability of the seeds the NGO has been supplying cuttings of the crop to farmers. The plant needs to be replaced after every two years.
“The business deal is discussed with individual farmers so that they get to know about their return on investments, which is quite high. One acre can give about 1 tonne per harvest, and the farmer is able to sell dried leaves at an agreed price,” said Jane.
The natural sweetness of the leaves also acts as an insect repellant with aphids and bugs avoiding the plant. Grass hoppers have also been reported to bypass stevia as they invade other crops.
Another partnership between World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) is the global trade association and development agency for credit unions, Ndege Chai Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) and PureCircle Kenya Ltd started in 2009 has also managed to contract about 400 farmers to grow the natural sweetener for export.
The SACCO provides the farmers with the financial assistance they need to purchase seedlings which cost Sh40 each, while PCK is involved in getting the market for the farmers.
The global market estimates for the herb currently range from $800 million to $2 billion ayear, up from just $20m in 2008, according to a new Packaged Facts report on sugars, sugar substitutes, and sweetener trends.
This leap in demand is attributed to the approval of the sweetener as an ingredient by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2008. Stevia has also been found to be a nutritious food containing vitamins A and C as well as protein iron, calcium, zinc, fibre, potassium and sodium.
“Kenyans should not be drinking sugarless tea as the price of sugar has become exorbitant when they can grow a few leaves in their backyards at a very low cost. They can afford healthy natural sugar whenever they need it and even earn income to diversify their activities from the sale of stevia,” said Jane.
Written by Bob Koigi for African Laughter
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