I’ve just arrived at Silvio Pettirosi Airport in the capital city of Asunción, in Paraguay. Mariano Demaria, who leads PureCircle Paraguay, is here to greet me. Together we will make the long journey to the stevia fields in Rio Verde, in the Northern region of the country.

It’s only about 100 miles from Asunción, but it can take us over four hours – first by car before the roads get too rough and then we must switch to an ATV to navigate the distinctly, rich red clay-like dirt roads. It’s beautiful here – hot and moist and the sun is beating down on my head. I wish I had remembered to bring my hat. My discomfort aside, it does make for ideal year-round growing conditions for stevia.

We have been working with hundreds of small-scale farmers here for many years, and I am always impressed by the warm yet reserved welcome of the people here. I can feel a sense of pride as they walk me through their stevia fields and show me all they have accomplished in the latest planting and harvesting season. I want to check on a new stevia variety we are growing here. We’ve been looking at how the plant does in the different soil conditions around the world and so far we’ve been making some incredible strides in Paraguay.

But my main focus for this week is to meet prospective new farmers and to hear about the progress we are making in recruiting new farmers to join us in our mission to make stevia available to millions around the world. Although the stevia plant is native to Paraguay, it is quite difficult to find farmers with the knowledge and skills to successfully grow stevia, as well as the willingness to take a risk and try something new.

It’s why we have invited a group of prospective stevia farmers to our nurseries in Guayaiví, where our agronomists show them the type of support that we provide for them to be successful - everything from how to plant seedlings and use other growing materials we provide, the best way to irrigate their land, and how to reduce unnecessary waste.

We will introduce them to the 7030 program, a collaboration between PureCircle and Paraguayan Ministry of Agriculture, which provides financial assistance and critical equipment to support small-scale farmers. Through this program, a first-year farmer can receive significantly greater income compared to other crops, resulting in substantial improvements in the standard of living for these farmers and their families.

Their success is vital to us. This is why I think of the farmers we partner with truly as our customers and believe in the importance of understanding what they need to be successful, in holistic and sustainable ways. It has not been easy.

It’s a deep-rooted belief in the positive impact of stevia and passionate commitment to partnering directly with farmers and farming communities that has been the foundation of how we work here and it’s a commitment we share, as partners, with Coca-Cola. We plan to continue to invest in growing stevia at never-before-seen levels here.

It’s the end of the day and I’m happy to see we have several farmers interested in doing trials with stevia. It may not seem like a significant number, but for us, it’s these small steps that are required to take leaps and bounds.

As I head back to the city, I think about my upcoming trip to Kenya next month. Although far apart, Paraguay and Kenya have become the ‘base’ for our stevia operations in South America and Africa, respectively, from which we have expanded to more than 15 countries. The farmers in Kenya are different in many ways, and yet, very much the same. I’m eager to see our progress firsthand!

Jordi Ferre is chief operating officer at PureCircle. He's been with the company for eight years and now leads their entire supply chain – from farming to final stevia leaf extract, as well as global commercial operations. Continue the story and find out how we're reducing the sugar in our drinks using stevia plant extract.