Kigali — The Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry Mr. Francois Kanimba, says his country still heavily relies on sugar imports to satisfy the local market with an estimated annual consumption of 80, 000 tons costing over US$50 million.
But a recent investor registered by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to grow stevier, a sugar leaf with several medical advantages might be the ultimate solution to reduce Rwanda's sugar imports.
Stevia-life Ltd, a foreign owned company based in Vancouver, British Columbia has been allocated a huge chunk of land in Rulindo District, in Rwanda's Northern Province to grow the crop with the ultimate goal of setting up a processing plant to extract sugar from the sweet leaf.
Tony Nsaganira RDB's acting chief of operations (COO) says the investor who has already started implementing the project was incorporated in 2011 and will invest an initial US$2Million but with plans to expand its scope once more land is found.
In Rulindo located about an hour's drive from the capital Kigali where the project is located, already ten hectares have been prepared and plantation is complete for the planting of the first stevier crops from a nursery of about 1,250,000 plants being prepared.
The investor whose project has created about 50 jobs for the local community has plans to clear another thirty hectares to expand the plantation in the near future. Rwanda's biggest problem is land pressure which has limited the potential for big time investments in commercial agriculture.
"It's a major challenge as many investors are willing to invest big money in various agricultural projects but inadequate land limits those ambitions," RDB's COO told EABW.
The Stevier plant which falls in the sunflower family is a native of the tropical regions of western North and South America is not a commonly grown in the region.
Rwanda will be targeting export earning to Kenya before the investor opens a plant to process and serve the local market.
Nsanganira says plans to open a Stevier processing plant are expected in two year's time.
A kilogram of unprocessed Stevier leaves sells at a minimum of $1.5 while a Kilogram of processed Stevier buys at US$6.
The species Stevia rebaudiana, commonly known as sweet leaf, sugar leaf, or simply Stevia, that the investor will be growing in Rwanda is tipped to be promoted as a substitute for ordinary sugar as the former has some medical attributions as well.
With its Steviol glycoside extracts boasting of having up to 300 times the sweetness of ordinary sugar; Stevia has garnered attention with an ever increasing demand mainly because of its low-carbohydrate, low-sugar food alternatives.
People on carbohydrate-controlled diets also find Stevia attractive because of its negligible effect on blood glucose and medical research has also shown possible benefits of Stevia in treating obesity and high blood pressure.
Commercialization of Stevier production mainly depends on reliable production and the investor wants the Rwandan authorities to find at least 100 hectares of land which is so far proving to be a tough call.
RDB's Nsanganira says they are encouraging investors to work with organized cooperatives of local farmers whose land can be used for commercial plantations.
Apart from being a money minting crop, agronomists also back Stevier as a pest resistant crop due to its very natural sweetness which provides a kind of natural defense mechanism against aphids and other bugs that find it not to their taste.
Even crop-devouring grasshoppers have been reported to bypass Stevia under cultivation.
Sugar remains one of Rwanda's top imports and in March last year, the Ministerial Session of the EAC Sectoral Council on Trade, Industry, Finance and Investment granted a request by Rwanda for an additional six-month duty waiver on sugar imports.
The decision by the Sectoral Council on Trade, Industry, Finance and Investment which brings together the Ministers responsible in the EAC Partner States gave its approval for the extension of the stay of application of the EAC Common External Tariff (CET) on 38,000 metric tonners of sugar to be imported into Rwanda following a report that the Rwanda could not take full advantage of a previous EAC allowance to import 50,000 metric tons duty free due to logistical issues.
However, the special treatment was withdrawn in October last year after the expiry of the six month waiver, sugar prices rose sky wise forcing many locals to abandon the sweetener.
A wide scale growth of Stevier will be a significant development towards reducing on the balance of payment receipts deficit accounts for money spent mostly on importing food items including rice.
Kabuye Sugar Works, Rwanda's only sugar plant produces 10,000 tons of sugar every year against an annual demand of above 50,000 tons. The shortfall is addressed through importation.
Theresphore Mugwiza, in Charge of Industrial Development at the Ministry of Trade and Industry told the press last year that plans are under way to construct a new sugar factory in Rwanda's Eastern Province.