Social Stock Exchange profile: SteviaLife

stevia Stevialife

Social Stock Exchange profile: SteviaLife

Orwell partner Gary Mead, looks at Social Stock Exchange member SteviaLife, who grow and harvest the ‘sweet herb’ stevia in Rwanda

Is it me, or are people fatter than they used to be?

No – it’s not me.

According to Public Health England (2015 data) “overweight and obesity among adults [people 16+]…showed that 62.9% of adults were overweight or obese…A substantial proportion of obese adults have a body mass index (BMI) of well over 30.”

Over-bulked bodies are becoming ubiquitous, as the World Health Organization (WHO) asserted in 2015: “Once considered a problem only in high income countries, overweight and obesity are now dramatically on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.”

The WHO pointed the finger at sugar. Most of us can’t get enough of the stuff. Why is that?

The consensus of academic research is that sugar is highly addictive. One review paper from 2013 states: “Overall, this research has revealed that sugar and sweet reward can not only substitute to addictive drugs, like cocaine, but can even be more rewarding and attractive.” Thoughtless journalists are addicted to this kind of stuff.

The sugar=cocaine connection however tells us almost nothing about the complex interactions between substance (be it sugar or heroin) and addiction. To understand that more deeply you need to turn to the work of Nora Volkov, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, whose online video pinpoints the real question: what is the neurobiological factor that interferes with our willpower to avoid addictive drugs?

Before we spin off into ever-esoteric realms however, there is good news for all those who like sweet things. You really can have your cake and eat it – and help other people, too. All thanks to a little-known plant called Stevia rebaudiana, or stevia for short. The Global Stevia Institute is a useful place to learn more about the plant.

The indigenous Guaraní people of Brazil and Paraguay have long known of and used stevia; in the local language it’s called ka’a he’ê or ‘sweet herb’; but it wasn’t until the 1930s that the molecules that give stevia is sweetness were isolated.

The beauty of stevia is that it’s many times sweeter than sugar (200-400 times, gram for gram of refined product) – but unlike sugar it has no calories, no carbohydrates. Stevia leaves have been processed and used in place of sugar in Japan since the 1970s; many of the big international soft-drinks companies are increasingly turning to it in place of artificial sweeteners; and regulatory health and safety approvals for its use are to be found across the world. Less than 4% of Japanese have a body mass index (BMI) over 30 (the international standard for obesity) whereas 32% of Americans do; 66.5% of Americans have a BMI over 25, making them overweight, but only 24.7% of Japanese.

Thus the story of SteviaLife Sweeteners, which was approved as a member of the Social Stock Exchange in December 2016, is intrinsically intriguing. SteviaLife grows and harvests Stevia in Rwanda, and mainly send its stevia to Purecircle, which listed on the LSE. We spoke to Dorian Banks, the Canadian entrepreneur behind SteviaLife, to get a better insight into the plant – and the company.

“I started looking around at what might be the next ‘big thing’ seven or eight years ago,” says Banks. “I looked at drones, at 3D printing, water…but to try to lock up and make money out of water supply just felt wrong to me. Then I started looking at food, looking for a crop with a high value but low-environmental impact. After a few possible others I landed on stevia and – to cut a long story short – we established the company in February 2016, starting out with land leases to grow it on 150 hectares in Rwanda.”

Rwanda wasn’t Banks’ first or obvious choice for stevia growing, but after trial and error trips to parts of Asia he found Rwanda’s corrupt-free and welcoming environment just perfect. Being close to the Equator, Rwanda also provides ideal stevia growing conditions, with year-round cropping.

Growing Stevia – and the demand for stevia is set to grow enormously, as people become increasingly sugar-averse while remaining addicted to their sweet tooth – is an astonishingly labour-intensive business for SteviaLife. “You don’t grow stevia from seed; you grow it from seedlings,” says Banks. “Each of our hectares takes 150,000 seedlings, each grown by hand and planted out by hand. We have revenue of $14,000 per hectare per year from our crop – and there’s no hybridisation as yet, to improve crop yields. That’s about four-to-seven times bigger revenue than from tea or coffee.” Banks estimates that yields can improve by 30%, if plant scientists are recruited to develop hybrids, as is planned by the company.

SteviaLife is mindful both of the soil and the quality of the stevia it produces. In China – another big producer – mechanical harvesting is the primary method, which can damage soils. Furthermore, the stems get into the final product, which lowers the quality downstream and increases energy use in the processing stage. SteviaLife’s no-till operation grows stevia as a perennial plant and the leaves are handpicked quarterly. The handpicking method has the added benefit of using fewer fossil fuels.

But just as stevia has changed many individuals’ diet – and will change many more – SteviaLife is changing the lives of many Rwandans. In a country where the minimum wage is $1/day, SteviaLife is paying its ordinary labourers $1.30-$1.40/day. Many of the company’s full-time and part-time workers – 86% of them women – have never previously have a full-time paying job; there will be almost 1,000 workers employed by May this year. The company provides health, maternity and day care. The cherry on the cake for the employees is that they get to power their mobile phones (via electricity supplied by a company-built solar array) for free – as opposed to paying $0.14 a day for the service. The sweetener for the Rwandan economy is that 3% of SteviaLife’s net profits will go into building key infrastructure.

SteviaLife’s ambition is to get to 1,000 hectares in Rwanda, and expend into stevia production in Tanzania and Uganda. Given that many of the world’s biggest food and drinks companies are increasingly using stevia in their products, this is yet another Social Stock Exchange member company that looks to have a bright future – making profits while making the world a better place.