Stevia is a sturdy green plant whose leaves contain a unique source of natural sweetness.
It’s grown all over the world, and is fast becoming one of the most popular crops on the market as more food and drink manufacturers look to use stevia plant extract as a zero-calorie sweetener to reduce the amount of sugar in their products. We currently use it in some of our drinks like Sprite, Coca-Cola Life and glaceau vitaminwater.
Not only is stevia changing the way we make our drinks, it’s also changing the world economy. Where famers previously drew irregular income from their land, stevia now improves families’ lives, as the story of ‘Mr Stevia’ in Kericho County, Kenya, reveals.
Sowing the stevia seeds
When PureCircle, the leading supplier of stevia ingredients, first introduced stevia as a new source of income to farmers in Kericho not all of them were initially sold on the idea. Kericho is Kenya’s tea capital, and most farmers prefer to use their land for tea planting, alongside growing the food and drink they need to feed themselves and their families.
But, Charles Langat, a hardworking farmer from Kericho, who was driven by the need to provide an improved economic lifeline for his family, did the unexpected and thought outside the box.
“One day I heard on a local radio show about this new crop named stevia. They said it could help small farmers like myself to make up for the declining income in recent years. So, I said to myself, why not give it a chance,” says the father of three.
That was just over a year ago. Now stevia is forming the backbone of his income.
“My first seeds I got from PureCircle, the company that introduced this complementary crop to us tea growers. Now I am able to pull my own seeds,” Charles explains.
Harvesting the stevia plant
Stevia grows best in upland areas with a sub-tropical climate so it’s well suited to the soil in Charles’ fields. Best of all, it only requires a small amount of fertiliser and water and the leaves are ready to harvest after just three months.
Despite facing challenges in the beginning, Charles’ sheer determination led him to work extra hard on his yields and he has reaped the benefits. “The potential for stevia to help with some of our income gaps is unmatched by any other crop," says Charles.
Charles has become the talk of the villages and is now popularly known by his nickname ‘Mr Stevia’, with many farmers wanting to know the secret of his success.
For months, he jumped on his moped to get to other farmers to whom he explained the methods and benefits of growing stevia. But, as he explains, “With time, these five hour journeys became quite exhausting. Therefore, I decided to focus on my farming and afterwards I invited farmers over to see how I did it.”
Farmers from far and wide took him up on his offer. Charles trains them to take on stevia farming in a bid to establish stevia plants as an additional crop to their yield; a move that has helped them take advantage of the huge interest in stevia from businesses around the world.
This is not his only speciality: “I go the extra mile,” says Charles, “I educate the farmers on how to manage and care for their farm animals too, as their droppings can be used as manure.” This little tip saves farmers from buying fertiliser and helps to increase the amount of stevia they grow.
Other benefits of the stevia plant
The sweet-tasting parts of the leaves may be a kind of natural defence mechanism against aphids and other bugs. “Perhaps that’s why crop-devouring grasshoppers avoid stevia,” says Charles.
Stevia is now becoming a popular choice with farmers in Kericho who want a crop that can withstand pest infestation, and some of the other adverse impacts in agriculture, including climate change. Charles hopes investors will choose the stevia market to help add value to the crop that will not only continue to help farmers, but the Kenyan economy as well.
Discover more fun facts in our ‘Stevia: From Farm to Fridge’ infographic.