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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Stevia plant set to be introduced in Sipili

By Victor Gachigi
Stevia plant has been attracting attention with the rise in demand for low-carbohydrate, low sugar sweeteners. The plant has been introduced in Kenya by James Finlay Kenya Limited through PureCirce Kenya Ltd which was at Sipili DO, s office in Laikipia West on June 9, 2014 to introduce the plant in the region.
Stevia is a natural dietary sweetener and sugar substitute made from the leaves of the plant species stevia rebaudiana. Originally from Paraguay in South America, the plant has started to be embraced in Kenya particularly in Kericho County.
“Main advantage of the plant over the common cane sugar is that it contains zero calories hence becoming a golden substitute especially for the diabetics,” said Mr. John Njoroge Muiruri, Laikipia West PureCircle Ltd Director.
Mr. Njoroge said the plant can be grown as a cash crop hence boosting the agro-economic activities of the farmers involved. He said that one Stevia leaf is several hundred times sweeter than ordinary sugar.
Mr. Njoroge noted that the global production of Stevia has managed to meet only 30% of the world’s demand. He said one has a potential of getting up to 600 kgs of the Stevia plant in a one acre piece of land when dried. Currently a kilo goes for around Ksh 100 thus a farmer can manage kshs 60,000 gross income after every 3 months as production increases with every successive harvest.
PureCircle officials together with some farmers
“The cost of production is about 30% of the total gross income which means that this can be slashed down if factors such as the most limiting resource of land can be kept constant by owning land,” said Mr. Njoroge.
Mr. Samuel Muriithi, a livestock extension officer who invited PureCircle Ltd in the area informed farmers that the plant grows well in areas with rainfall requirement of 1,500mm to 2,000mm per annum and preferably well spread throughout the year. He added that the plant requires an ideal ambient temperature of 10C to 30C.
“The Stevia plant can endure a period of up to 3 months without any rain and can grow in a variety of soils as long as they are rich in organic matter,” said Mr.Muriithi.
He said the plant is grown in a nursery using cuttings such as those used in growing tea leaves though the nursery needs to be covered with special nets and polyethene materials. Roots will begin to develop after four days. The plant will have at least three leaves after four weeks which can be used as seeds. In case of inadequate rainfall this process can take as much as 8 weeks.
He said beds which are 30 ft long and 2 ft wide are made in the farm where the seedlings are planted. After 3months the plant is mature and ready to be harvested when a yellowish color begins to form on the stems. A mature Stevia plant will grow to about one feet high.
To harvest the Stevia, cuttings of the stems together with the leaves involved leaving out the stubs to enhance re-growth which marks the beginning of the proceeding plant’s cycle. The next step involves drying the harvested plant by simply spreading it on the ground and exposing it to the sun for about five hours which makes the leaves to separate from the stems. The dried leaves are then collected, weighed and taken to the market.
He said harvesting can be carried out six times per year for a period of up to four years though this will depend on the weather pattern. He said proper cultivation is recommended after every harvest.                                
“The plant needs no pesticides because most insects dislike the sweet juice in the plant’s leaves and it is also advisable to use organic fertilizer rather than the synthetic ones,” said Mr. Mureiithi.
Mr. Njoroge promised farmers who are interested in growing the plant that they will be back in the area with seeds and they will also provide extension services.
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