Stevia, the new ‘cash cow’ on test in Rulindo District

Agricultural experts have successfully completed the trial of a new plant they say will, in the next coming years, become one of the country’s cash crops.
Part of a Stevia plantation in Rulindo District.  Saturday Times / Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti
Part of a Stevia plantation in Rulindo District. Saturday Times / Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti

Agricultural experts have successfully completed the trial of a new plant they say will, in the next coming years, become one of the country’s cash crops.

The crop, known as Stevia, is being piloted under a project owned by Dorian Banks from Canada and it is a commonly known natural sweetener with sweet leaves.

The pilot project is located in Yanze Valley in Ngoma Sector of Rulindo District, and the crop has been planted on a 42-hectare piece of land.

According to Eng. Bruce Irambona, who deals with the production and management of Stevia in Rwanda, a preliminary study showed that the soil and the climate of Rwanda are friendly to the crop adding that it will soon be in the category of coffee and tea, the country’s traditional cash crops.

“Stevia  is a more productive cash crop and it is harvested in a short period. It is, however, a delicate plant that needs more care; we are harvesting leaves which we plan to export after drying,” said Irambona,“We shall start exporting next month.”

The crop is harvested only after five months of planting and, from then, leaves are picked every after one month, while the plantation lasts four five years, according to Irambona.

There are readily available markets in China and Malaysia, and the harvest is sold as dry leaves with one kilogramme costing $1.5 (approximately Rwf1,000).

Among the challenges they are faced with at the moment, Irambona said, is land shortage.

“As per our roadmap, we want to extend the plantation in valleys and we also wish to engage out-growers, we will avail them with seeds and assure them of market, we have no challenges of production as the crop is friendly and doesn’t need inorganic fertilisers which are imported. The plan can healthily thrive on organic manure,” he said.

Irambona said that this crop can be extended to other parts of the country.

“We are planning to have our own factory as long as we get enough land and once out-growers adopt our crop, we hope we will have good production and a good way to improve the value chain of the plant so that it fetches more on the market,” he added.

He said that grown on land of between 600 hectares and 1,000 hectares, the plant alone can fetch over $100 million after five years.

Government interest

Trade and Industry minister Francois Kanimba, who visited the project this week, expressed government interest in the crop, saying that Stevia would be a strategic addition to tea and coffee which are the main exports.

“This means a lot,  that this crop can generate $100 million within five years,” Kanimba said adding that such initiatives are needed to reduce the import-export deficit.

He, however, urged the project managers to look for ways to have their own factory in the coming years so they can export final products.

In an interview yesterday, Dr Agnes Kalibata, the Minister of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry, said that Stevia was approved as a new cash crop and that government will ensure that the plant is grown in other districts.

She said the product will contribute to the development of the country including creating jobs for farmers, adding that the long-term plan is to ensure it is properly processed to supplement sugar that is both locally produced and imported.

“It is a new cash crop, it is a diversification of agriculture and as we grow it, it will reduce requirement of sugar, the plan over next four years is to have it grown in all districts,” Kalibata said by phone.

According to the Mayor of Rulindo District, Justus Kangwage, there are efforts to extend  area of plantation into valleys and out-growers will be mobilised.

He said that the district will avail 400 hectares for the project to extend the plantation.

Residents around the valley where Stevia is cultivated said they have benefitted through employement.

“Stevia plantation has generated jobs for us, it really does not require much expertise to work here, you just have to be attentive. We get money that we use in our daily lives, and are hopeful that we will have seeds to begin growing it ourselves,” said Josiane Mukamazimpaka, one of the employees in Stavia plantation.

 So far 250 people are employed in the plantation with the plan to employ 5,000 in the near future.

What is Stevia

Information on www.webmd.com, indicates that Stevia is a plant whose origin is traced to South America, where it is probably best known as a source of natural sweeteners and it has been in use for hundreds of years. Natives in South America have also made herbal medicine out of it.

Stevia is used as a weight loss aid; for treating diabetes, high blood pressure and heartburn; for lowering uric acid levels; for preventing pregnancy; and for increasing the strength of the muscle contractions that pump blood from the heart, according to the website.

In foods, Stevia is used as a non-caloric sweetener and flavor enhancer and it was originally available as a “dietary supplement” in the United States.

It wasn’t allowed as a “food additive” until 2008, when the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) status to rebaudioside A, one of the major components of Stevia.

Stevia is also available as a sweetener in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Russia, Israel, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Columbia, Brazil, and Argentina.

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