Stevia: a sweetener for Kenyan exporters – and farmers’ pockets

A natural sweetener is providing Kenyan farmers with an opportunity to be a part of a rapidly growing supply chain that includes several other countries from around the world.

Stevia, known worldwide as a natural sweetener, comes from plants that are grown in the tropics and subtropics. The leaves of the popular plant are sweet and ideal for people conscious of their sugar and carbohydrate intake. With zero calories, the plant is being recognised as a great replacement for sugar and other sweeteners.

Ajay Chandran is global marketing director of PureCircle, the world’s leading producer and marketer of stevia products. He said Africa is a critical part of their mission to mainstream the plant as the next natural sweetener, and they are working with about fifteen hundred farmers in Kenya to grow it.

“We work very closely with the farmers because we think it’s integral and important that they are successful as they grow this new crop. And we have in place close to 140 technicians who are actually working with the farmers very closely on a daily basis to make sure they have the right tools, have the right agronomic expertise and information to grow stevia in a successful manner,” explained Chandran.

The company provides farmers with a contract prior to the growing period so they know the price they’ll receive for the crop at the end of the season.

“We’ve also provided close to a million dollars’ worth of micro-financing to farmers in Africa because we understand that as you start a new crop, the African farmers are looking for additional support from a financial standpoint,” said Chandran.

They’re also getting support from a technical standpoint: PureCircle is helping farmers to grow a sustainable business by showing them the benefits of adopting carbon and water friendly practices, like converting bio waste to organic fertiliser.

“The other thing that we do is we teach how to reduce water consumption. Most stevia is rain fed, so it doesn’t require any great amount of irrigation from lakes and other water outlets. But even so as water is brought into the fields, we are able to show them how they can conserve water without really having it go into waste,” said Chandran.

Farmers are also taught to grow the crop on only a third of their land so local food security issues are not brought into question.

Chandran explained that Kenyan farmers have responded positively to the introduction of growing the new high yielding export. He said the guarantee of income at the end of the season allows them to continue to invest and grow the natural sweetener successfully.

“Stevia is not a crop that is grown one season and then you uproot it and plant something else the next season. Sometimes it takes a little more dedication. We’ve had dedicated farmers who have partnered with us [since 2008], close to 15 hundred farmers in 2012. We expect that number to go up to close to around four thousand farmers,” Chandran noted.

The supply chain for stevia also includes Paraguay, China and Malaysia. Chandran says thanks to Kenya’s climate, PureCircle is looking to add more farms to grow – and export – the natural sweetener. – VOA