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It’s 400 times sweeter than the most common sweetener, sugar, and with zero calories attached. Planted once, it’s crop for five years, every four months. Growing it has been an even sweeter experience for Banga’s income tax consultant Rajpal Singh Gandhi (56).
When stories of agrarian crisis were coming out, Gandhi was looking to get into agriculture after 10 years of advising people on a different kind of returns. Unlike the average farmer of Punjab, he had the money to take risk, which allowed him to not only grow this natural sweetener in the Kandi (sub-mountainous) area of the Shivalik foothills but also build a processing plant with hard research. Now stevia is big income to many small farmers; and awards, recognition and states are chasing Gandhi.
After bitter experience
The story with a happy ending had a depressing start. His 6-acre crop, 10 years of hard work, had turned out to be of no use in the absence of a processing unit in the country. “We contacted the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, to assemble a prototype for us. Lakhs of rupees went into it but the unit still had many shortcomings. I had to work on it for two years, meeting scientists, engineers and innovators, but the result of our hard work is sweet,” said Gandhi.
Initially, he started with growing kinnow over 35 acres in 2003. Lack of marketing facilities forced him in 2008 to reduce the crop are to less than a half. “I tried planting potato and other vegetables, even gladiolus, but the marketing facilities remained poor and I looked to stevia, my wisest decision,” a beaming Gandhi told HT.
His stevia testing and research laboratory is certified by the Indian department of scientific and industrial research (DSIR) and his processing plant is built with soft loan from the department of biotechnology under the Ministry of Science and Technology. “The ministry liked our innovative idea and the help came easy,” he said.
The Rs 12-crore plant can process 5 tonnes of stevia leaves in a shift of 8 hours, which is equivalent to crop out of 5 acres. “We turned challenges into opportunities and now we have the only stevia-processing unit in the country,” says Gandhi.
A tissue-culture laboratory helps improve the plant variety. Gandhi’s company, Green Valley Farms, sells processed stevia under a brand name. It’s in powder forms in sachets and containers. Stevia green tea is a hit on the market.
States chase him
Attracted by Gandhi’s story, the Gujarat government invited him last year to the Vibrant Gujarat investment summit, where they signed a deal to grow stevia over 2,500 acres in the Aravali and Kaparganj districts with a 100% buy-back clause and small farmers of the area. “The invite came a fortnight before the summit, and when the meet ended, the deal was operational. Gujarat moves so fast,” said Gandhi, adding: “The chief secretary of the state had one-on-one meetings with me, and all issues were taken care of in no time.”
On February 28, he is going to sign an agreement with the Uttar Pradesh medicinal plant board in Lukhnow to grow the sweet crop over 4,000 acres, starting with 700 acres. “Already the board grows medicinal plants over a large area and it plans to switch to stevia. Since the logistics are simpler, I plan to build a processing plant in UP,” said the farmer.
On knowing that Gandhi had reached an agreement with Gujarat, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal also invited him and built stevia promotion bureau in the state with additional chief secretary Suresh Kumar as its head and Gandhi as one of the members. “I want to do more in Punjab, for which things need to move faster,” said Gandhi.
In Punjab, he is helping farmers grow stevia over 25 acres in Gurdaspur, Ludhiana, and Ferozpur districts. “It is my personal initiative. I plan to involve farmers to grow the crop over 450 acres by this season,” he said.
Before coming into stevia-processing, Gandhi visited China and South American countries Colombia and Paraguay to get know about the plant. “Paraguay claims stevia is its native crop, so I went there to learn,” he said. He ended up signing agreements with Canadian company Pixels Health for as much Stevia powder as Gandhi could supply.
Last July, the Democratic Republic of Congo government took saplings from him to grow in the central African country, and now encouraged by the results, is willing to enter a buy-back arrangement with him.
Gandhi is only member from Punjab on the Indian Council of Food and Agriculture, a body of experts from different fields, with “Father of Indian Green Revolution” MS Sawaminathan as chief patron. “In September 2014, he gave me an award, declaring that stevia growing was sweet revolution for health as wheat and paddy were Green Revolution against hunger,” said Gandhi.
India consumes 2.6 crore tonnes of sugar every year, and if given a choice, would like to shift to a healthier option — stevia, which is a zero-calorie sweetener, a kilogram of which has sweetness of 400 kilograms of sugar, which is also costlier. Japan’s 70% population has moved to stevia as a sweetener. “After local issues are settled,” says Gandhi, “I would explore the market in Japan.”
In November 2015, the Food and Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) approved stevia as a sugar substitute. “Now companies such as Pepsi and Coca Cola are expected to use it in a big way in their already-launched zero-calorie aerated drinks Pepsi-next and Coke-life,” says Gandhi.