Life

How a wonder plant is sweetening the life of rural farmers in India

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Two men with IT backgrounds returned to India to work on their dream to bring socio economic benefits to rural farmers here and they found in Stevia, a sugar substitute, the perfect answer to bring about the change By Steena Joy

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Manjunath Mandikal

When Manjunath Mandikal and Ranganath Krishnan, both with an engineering background and work experience of over 25 years in the IT field overseas, returned to India, they desperately wanted to  contribute to India’s agrarian economy, using a socio-economic model. They spent a lot of time studying various crops, their economics, marketability, etc, and looked for new crops with high market potential, that would make a difference to the earning potential of the farmer and address the need of new generation foods  with high protein, low calorie, low carbs, low glycemic, etc. They also studied the market in terms of the march of lifestyle disorders. Finally after much research, the duo shortlisted a few crops, and Stevia is the first of the lot. In 2013, their greenfield venture, Stevia World Agro Tech was set up.

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Ranganath Krishnan

Named after the 16th century botanist Petrus Jacobus Stevus, Stevia is a plant native to South America, mainly to Paraguay, where it has been used as a medicinal plant for over 1500 years by local Guaraní Indians. Dr Moises S Bertoni discovered the sweetness in Stevia and introduced it to the world in 1901. Stevia cultivation started in India around 2004/6, but failed miserably due to many reasons. Firstly, it was not approved in most of the countries as food additive at that time. Then, extraction technology was not matured and not available and lastly, quality planting material with higher TSG (Total Steviol Glycosides) was not available. TSG determines the sweetness content in the leaves.

Manjunath Mandikal, director, Stevia World, says, “Since then the scenario has changed considerably. More than 150 countries have now approved the use of Stevia as a food additive. Extraction technology is mature and available, in fact we have, may be five to six PhD holders in this field now. Better planting materials have been developed like Morita1, Morita 2, etc. With more and more people being affected by lifestyle disorders like diabetes, obesity, and with improved awareness of bad effects of artificial sweeteners like Aspartame and Sucralose, low calorie, low glycemic foods and a natural source of sweetness are the need of the hour.”

Sweet success

Stevia is not just a natural alternative, but a healthy alternative, as it contains zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero gluten and has zero glycemic index. Speaking about the potential in India, Mandikal informs, “India is almost considered as the diabetic capital of the world. Some studies show that one in three Indians, above the age of 40, is either diabetic or in pre-diabetic condition. We can imagine the market size with this. Probably, India and USA would be very big markets for Stevia.”

Most parts of India are suited for Stevia cultivation as the ideal temperature range would be between 25°C to 35°C and the plant survives between four°C to 45°C. After a disastrous start in 2005/6/7, farmers have some reservations about Stevia cultivation. Thankfully, the perception is now changing with Stevia cultivation picking up in many states, mainly Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

“Currently the National Medicinal Plant Board and AYUSH are supporting Stevia cultivation by offering 30 per cent subsidy on the cost of cultivation. This should help farmers to start large scale cultivations. Stevia will bring benefits to both the farmers and the consumers equally. For farmers, it will mean increased income levels, a better lifestyle which will also slow down rural to urban migration. For consumers, it will offer them an healthier substitute for sugar, “ he adds.

20150915eh61The simple thought of these benefits was what motivated the promoters to start intense work in this field. To benefit all stakeholders, they needed to achieve the complete cycle of farm to fork. Today, the company has sufficient knowledge on cultivation (thanks to the support of the Agricultural University, IIHR and other advisors), extraction of sweetener molecules (Stevioside, Rebaudioside A) and formulation into retail product forms such as sachet, liquid and tablets.

Mandikal reveals, “With formal FSSAI approval in February 2015, we are ready with our products to enter the market. We currently have sachets (25 x one gm) and jars (100 gms) under our brand name ‘Cerovia’, a cooking and baking mix ‘SweetXX’ in pouches (250 gms) and chosen, hand-picked dry Stevia leaves in the name of ‘Healthy Leaf’.”

It has been proven that the use of dry Stevia leaves directly as a part of tea or on its own has many medicinal values. It is proven to have anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective properties, and also it is supposed to rejuvenate pancreatic beta cells to produce more insulin in the body. It also has beneficial effects on the skin, increases the haemoglobin content in the blood and is  tooth friendly.

Benefiting farmers

Speaking on the area under Stevia cultivation, Mandikal says, “Currently we are cultivating Stevia on around 10 acres of our own land near Bengaluru for over two years, which we intend to increase to over 100 acres. Around 25 acres is under contract farming which we intend to increase to around 800-1000 acres in a year from now. We are promoting contract farming aggressively across India and some state governments are also supporting us in our mission to take Stevia cultivation to as many farmers as possible. As per our calculation, for every acre of Stevia cultivation, one farmer’s family can better their current living standards. We want to spread the awareness of Stevia to benefit large numbers of farmers as well as consumers equally.”

In their contract farming model, Stevia World supplies farmers with plant saplings, provides detailed training from planting to harvesting, advice on land preparation, fertigation and plant management based on local parameters, and buyback of all produce at a pre-determined rate based on the quality bracket. Quality of the produce is measured on the TSG content in the leaves. “We also provide all the inputs required in terms of plant nutrition and pest management throughout its life cycle. The company’s agriculture officers ensure compliance by regular monitoring during their periodic visits. The ideal soil type would be red loamy soil and ideal irrigation system would drip or micro jet,” he explains.

Explaining about the collection system, Mandikal elucidates, “We collect at the farm gate if nearby or we request the farmers to send the produce to the nearest transport hub to be sent to us. In either case we take care of the logistics, effectively our prices are farm gate prices. It is still a very early stage for Stevia cultivation in India, and a small number of farmers have benefited, but with improved awareness thousands of farmers can benefit from Stevia cultivation.”

Currently China is the largest exporter of Stevia extracts in the world, with way over 90 per cent market share. Though South America is the largest producer of Stevia leaves, most of the processing happens in China. “India has a great potential to change this in her favour, but we need to go a long way for it. Our first target should be to increase awareness of Stevia and provide Indians with a healthy alternative for sweetness. This itself is a huge task. ‘Swasth Bharat’ (Health for All) is one of the campaigns announced by our honourable prime minister. If we have surplus production, we can export it. The whole world is a ready market for this wonder plant.”

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