Sweet stevia turns bitter for Kenyan farmers

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When Kibet Tanui, a tea farmer in Kabianga Division of Kericho County, heard that a new cash crop was being introduced in his area, he was excited and accompanied fellow farmers in his village to attend a meeting organized by a multinational company.

But after three years of producing stevia (a natural sweetener), Tanui realised the crop was not bringing in good returns as they had been promised. He eventually uprooted his stevia crop and planted tea instead. Tanui is not alone - of the more than 400 farmers who had registered to grow stevia in Kabianga division, only 60 farmers are presently still growing the crop. The farmers have abandoned the crop for what they claim are low prices and non-fulfillment of promises made by the company that is contracting farmers to grow stevia for export. 

Failed to honour contract

“First we discovered that the company did not offer the prices that had been promised. Secondly, although we signed the contracts, we were not given copies of the same in order to read all the terms. The firm did not visit farmers to offer technical support as they had promised. Thirdly, some of the inputs that were supposed to improve the soil for stevia production such as agricultural lime to correct soil acidity were not provided. They only tested my soil and advised me to look for lime which is not available locally,” adds Tanui.

Uprooted stevia

Francis Mugo in Kianyaga, shows a portion of his land where he had uprooted tea to grow stevia but has now removed the stevia to replant tea.

Tanui’s neighbour, David Chirchir, planted stevia for the last six years. Chirchir had planted 12,000 stevia seedlings initially but he has reduced this to only 4000 plants. He says that although the crop requires extra labour compared to other crops, this would not be a problem since the crop is not prone to pests and diseases. This makes it cheaper to grow stevia compared to other crops such as potatoes, tomatoes and vegetables which require a lot of money for purchase of chemicals to control them. It appears that the main problem with stevia production is with the low prices offered by the company.

Unexplained deductions

Chirchir says the other problems facing the farmers relationship with the company are the unexplained deductions. “When we signed the contracts with the company, we were told that the only deduction they would make when we deliver the dry leaf was the 30 per cent of what we deliver to pay for inputs provided to us such as fertilizers and polyethylene material for nursery sheds. But we later on learnt that they have an arrangement with Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) in Kericho where they make further deductions which were not explained in the payment slips,” he says. Chirchir explains that if the prices do not improve this season, he will also have to uproot the remaining stevia plants and grow vegetables instead. Another farmer from Kibara village, Samuel Bengat, is also thinking of abandoning stevia production for cabbage, which he was producing before.

Lack of transparency

“If they can pay better prices for stevia, then it would make business sense to grow it, but at the current prices no farmer can grow stevia and make a profit. If the price was good we can even increase the acreage under production but for now the only option is to uproot the crop and grow other crops,”says Bengat. The farmers are of the opinion that if the company was fair, it would explain the various deductions on their deliveries. “Infact we do not know how much the company is making when they export and process stevia, yet we continue to labour for a crop that has brought us great misery due to the poor prices,” says Tanui.

Company denies farmer exploitation

The company's General Manager refutes claims by farmers that poor prices are the reason for uprooting of stevia crop. He says that since the company entered the Kenyan market, there has not been any downward revision of prices. He says the company started with a price of KSh 70 in 2011 but it has since increased to KSh105, which will be raised to KSh 140 soon, an increase 100%. “I think the farmers uprooting stevia are just poor managers of their crops. Stevia requires good management to give good returns. Most farmers have shown poor weed management and even fertilizer application, hence they end up with poor yields and less income,” he adds.

The firm denies that there are unjustified deductions on farmer's payments, adding that the only deductions made are for inputs supplied on credit such as polyethylene sheds, seedlings and fertilizers, which are deducted at the rate of 30 per cent of the value of every delivery to the company. The manager denies that there are other deductions made on farmer's earnings apart from the 30 per cent.

He says many middlemen have entered the market in the name of the company and could be responsible for some of the allegations made against it. Paul Mwangi, a farmer from Kangawa village in Molo has the same experience. He says farmers in his village were introduced to stevia production by the Network for Ecofarming in Africa (NECOFA), which supplied stevia seedlings to farmers in the region. “The organization was buying stevia at a reasonable price of KSh 200 per kg of dry leaf but they stopped buying. So we had to sign production contracts with a multinational company, which he claims, has not been paying well.

“Many farmers have abandoned stevia production. From the 11 farmers who were growing stevia here, only four of us have the crop now. We are thinking of abandoning commercial production and only grow it for our own use,” he says. Francis Mugo a farmer from Kianyaga has the same story, he says they were contracted by a company that later refused to collect the leaf. He has been forced to uproot stevia and replant tea.

What is stevia?

Stevia or sweet leaf (Stevia rebaudiana) originated from Central and South America where it has been used for its sweetness and medical properties for thousands of years. Its sweetness comes from steviol glycosides. These substances are about 200 times sweeter than ordinary sugar but they do not give any energy to the body when consumed, a reason why people suffering from diabetes are advised to use stevia. In western countries and urban centres in the rest of the world, stevia extracts are used as sweetener, to fight caries, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Some of the biggest producers of stevia are Paraguay, China, India, Malaysia and other countries in the Far East. The international farmgate price for one kilogram of dry stevia leaves is about KSh 180 (about 2 US dollars). To get one kilogramme of Steviol glycosides (stevia powder) factories use 14-16 kg of the dry leaf, which must contain about 10% Steviol glycosides. About 4 to 6 kg of dry leaf is lost during processing. The price for 50g of stevia powder (mainly imported from china and India) in local pharmaceutical outlets and supermarkets ranges between KSh 370 and KSh 450; however, high quality stevia powder in local high end stores goes for between KSh500- KSh 600.

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