About 600 people, 85 per cent of them women in Rulindo District, are employed on plantations owned by Stevia Life Sweeteners Company LTD, which was established in the district last year.
Currently, Mulindi marshland in Rulindo has 60 hectares planted with 10 million plants while 40 hectares are yet to be used for the same activity.
In separate interviews last week, residents said their welfare is not the same ever since they started work on the farm.
Jose Alice Uwimana, one of the young casual workers, said five months after she started work on the plantation, she has bought some livestock and hens which supplement her wages.
Uwimana said: “I dropped out of school after Ordinary Level two years ago. I have been employed for the last five months. With regular wages my welfare has improved and I joined a savings group for better management of my earnings”.
The sweet herb, Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni produces an alternative sweetener (steviol glycosides) in its leaves.
It was piloted in Rulindo District in 2011, and has since been scaled up to other districts, including Ngoma, Kirehe, Gasabo, Nyaruguru, Nyanza and Rwamagana.
Stevia can produce between six and eight tonnes per hectare per year and is harvested up to five years before they can be replaced.
According to Bruce Irambona, Managing Director of Stevia Life Sweeteners, last year around 20 tonnes of Stevia dry leaves were exported to a refiner who in turn supplies Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, P&G, among others companies.
Irambona said that once all hectares are covered at Mulindi marshland the number of workers will simultaneously increase at both field and management levels.
The company also intends to increase its export of dry leaves every month targeting to have 5,000 hectares planted in Rwanda and in the region in the next few years.
Irambona noted that significant changes have been made in the area in terms of infrastructure and people’s welfare.
Mothers are given maternity leave, which they thought was impossible for a farm-based employee.
“Each family in the area has a member employed in the company. Youth unemployment was a critical issue in the area, but since the beginning of the project no one was left behind or denied to work for the company. Residents created savings groups and subscribe to the health insurance scheme, Mutuelle de Sante,” he added.
Another worker, Jerene Mukampunga, said that the farm has improved her living conditions significantly.
“Today, I have a savings account. Once I am paid I do not withdraw the whole salary, I leave some on the account for future plans. I can afford basic needs for my children and I expect to gain more,” Mukampunga added.
Stevia Farming Company targets to promote production and export of Stevia plant. In 2015; it signed a memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Trade and Industry and East Africa Community Affairs (MINEACOM) aimed at promoting the crop in the country.