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WOCCU backs introducing stevia crop in Kenya
KISUMU, Kenya (3/31/10)--Soft drinks' popularity is creating an economic crisis for the world's tea leaf growers, with many seeing a significant drop in demand for their crop. Thanks to help from World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU), Kenyan farmers in Kisumu, northwest of Nairobi, are now growing stevia, a natural sweetener that could one day overtake its artificial counterparts.
Click to view larger image Brian Branch, left, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the World Council of Credit Unions, examines the stevia crop of Kenyan farmer Samwel Kirui and his wife while the plants dry in the sun before being sold to processors.
Stevia, a member of the sunflower family, originated in South America and grows as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Sometimes known as "sweetleaf" or "sugarleaf," stevia's leaves have a natural sweetness 30 to 45 times that of regular sugar. It is widely used as a sweetener in Japan and as a food additive or dietary supplement in other countries, said WOCCU. Medical testing has shown that stevia can be an effective sugar substitute with a positive impact on obesity and high blood pressure, said WOCCU. It also has a negligible effect on blood glucose levels, making it attractive as a sweetener for people on low-carbohydrate diets. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved stevia extract as a sugar substitute in December 2008. With the help of funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, WOCCU has introduced stevia varieties grown on small plots by poor rural farmers who are members of Kenya's Ndege Chai Savings and Credit Co-operative (SACCO), or credit union. After two years of testing, Kisumu's stevia growers are bringing their crop to market through a business alliance with Finlays, a Scottish company with extensive tea growing operations in East Africa and Sri Lanka. "The majority of Kenya's poor still live in rural areas, and many of them are small landowners and subsistence farmers looking for crops that will provide additional household income. Stevia is a crop that has the potential for strong demand," said Brian Branch, WOCCU executive vice president and chief operating officer, who has worked with Kenya's stevia farmers. "Poor farmers with the least amount of training can produce stevia sustainably and profitably on their small landholdings. The challenge will be achieving the scale of production necessary to match stevia's market potential," Branch said.
Click to view larger image The stevia plant is widely used as a sweetener and food additive or dietary supplement. (Photos provided by the World Council of Credit Unions)
Most Kenyan farmers start their stevia crop on a half-acre. The stevia, which grows to be three feet tall, requires two-and-one-half months of cultivation. The leaves are stripped from the plant, dried, and then sold to be ground into a fine white powder that is the basis of the sweetener. The very soft drink companies that are competing with tea leaf production are the world's largest users of sugar and sweeteners, offering tremendous potential for stevia growers. But to tap that market requires significantly more stevia than the farmers can currently grow. Ndege Chai currently finances operations for 1,500 members growing stevia and anticipates that number could grow to 2,000 by the end of 2010. Crop demand projections suggest that 25,000 area farmers could be growing stevia in five years, a capacity far beyond the financial capabilities of Ndege Chai and other small SACCOs. Business alliances with companies like Finlays could provide the capability necessary to raise Kisumu's stevia production to the levels needed to attract the attention of major soft drink conglomerates, according to Branch. "As a substitute for the tea crop, which is declining in popularity, stevia helps poor Kenyan farmers bridge their income gaps," Branch added. "The potential of stevia to help these same farmers raise their earning potential appears to be unmatched by any other crop."
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