Phil Moore

In Burundi, stevia is savior and target

The dietary sweetener is on track to uplift the economy, but it's already been ensnared in political infighting

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Before he died, Epitace Bayaganakandi’s dream was to see stevia, a natural plant-based sweetener, transform the lives of poor farmers in his home country. The new darling of diet drinks, stevia was already in use in products such as Coca-Cola Life, and had been projected to take over 30 percent of the $84 billion dietary sweetener industry. The way Bayaganakandi saw it, the “miracle plant” could be an economic silver bullet.

Burundi is a tiny, landlocked country in the Great Lakes region of central Africa where the math simply doesn’t add up: there are too many people and not enough land or economic opportunities to support them all. Last year, the country’s 10 million-person population expanded at a rate of over three percent, giving it among the most rapidly increasing population densities in the world. Ninety percent of Burundians rely on agriculture, but food security is a significant problem. The country has the world’s highest levels of hunger — over half of the population is chronically malnourished. While the West is trying to cut down on calorie intake, the average Burundian gets just three quarters of their recommended daily amount.  With 90% of export earnings coming from coffee and tea, what was needed, Bayaganakandi thought, was a new crop to diversify people’s income streams. What he might not have expected was that the plant would become a target of politically motivated attacks. 

Stevia, a South American export, looks like sage and has small, textured leaves that are extremely sweet. It can grow at every at altitude in Burundi, and will bear a crop within three months of planting (tea, by contrast, takes four years). It is in massive global demand, commands a good price, and can be processed domestically.

Bayaganakandi had heard of stevia production in Kenya and Rwanda, and he worked out that nearly 2,500 acres of stevia plantations could inject around 400 million Burundian francs ($250,000) into the economy each year. By selling leaves for processing, a household that cultivated 15 acres of stevia could earn a million Burundian francs ($625) annually.  If stevia took off, Bayaganakandi also stood to make a significant profit.

Starting in 2012, with help from a Chinese company that specializes in stevia production, Bayaganakandi’s company, Stevco, spent $6 million constructing a stevia processing plant in the central province of Mwaro. Stevco stocked nurseries across the country, and built up a team of farmers, community liaison officers and security guards to support their efforts. Production got off to a promising start. Local farmers embraced the new plant, and some even stole seedlings from nurseries to grow their own crops. A year and a half later, Bayaganakandi proudly told local journalists that Burundi would become the first country in Africa to export processed stevia. 

The collapsed roof of Bujumbura's city market on July 25, 2015.
Phil Moore

As this was happening, the political situation was becoming extremely tense in Burundi. After nine years in office, President Pierre Nkurunziza was widely expected to run for a third term in the 2015 election — a move that opponents said would contravene the constitution and the peace agreement that had ended Burundi’s 13-year civil war in 2006.

The possibility of a third term directly concerned Bayaganakandi. He was not only a businessman and a retired colonel; he was also the head of the opposition party Movement for the Rehabilitation of Citizens (MRC). A year before the election, in the the spring of 2014, the government ordered Stevco to stop growing the plant. That July, before the first harvest had even been picked, violent attacks began on stevia farms.

At one stevia plantation in Bugarama, a village slightly north of the capital, unidentified assailants hurled a grenade at the plantation’s security guard in the middle of the night. Leaving the guard injured, they then stormed the small hillside nursery, spraying the crops with acid and bullets.

A few weeks later, a 25-year-old Stevco technician was at home in the northwestern city of Bubanza when he says police burst in. The officers seized Claude Bigirimana’s telephone and gave him an ultimatum. “If you’re still here in two hours, we’ll kill you,” one shouted. Bigirimana fled to the capital, where he has lived ever since. A spokesperson for the police did not wish to comment. 

There were more violent attacks in October. In January, the regional director of the department for agriculture and livestock in Rumonge personally took part in the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of stevia plants with machetes and hoes, declaring it an "illegal" weed — a charge Steveco denies.

The raids on the plantations, Stevco managers claim, were political — designed to intimidate and undermine the opposition. “The government was scared because they thought [Bayanganakandi] could use the stevia to influence people to vote for him in the elections,” said a political analyst unconnected to the business who asked not to be named. The spokesperson for the ruling party was not available for comment.

Ferdinand Nikyongabo, who manages the plantation in Bugarama, saw the attacks as part of a larger strategy. “[The local government] doesn’t want too many people to be developed,” he said. "It has been said by the governor himself that if people get money, it will be impossible to govern them.” Nikyongabo saw nearly half of his 75-person staff leave after the acid attack. 

The stevia attacks were not the first example of alleged economic sabotage in recent Burundian history. In 2013, the cavernous central market building in Bujumbura was gutted by a fire that many believe was intentional. Of the more than 5,000 registered traders, only 5 percent had insurance, meaning that many lost not just their wares but also tens of thousands of dollars in cash. (It’s common for vendors to keep money in their stalls rather than in bank accounts.) The Burundian government had sold land to a multinational company, and rumors circulated that the fire had been linked to the deal.

When Nkuruniza confirmed plans to seek a third term, more than 180,000 Burundians fled the country in the run-up to the elections, including many senior political figures who opposed the president. The opposition pledged to boycott the vote. Last July, Nkurunziza won his controversial third term in a landslide. Bayaganakandi's MRC party, which participated in the boycott, won 0.3 percent of the vote, and did not secure a single seat in parliament.

A bag of stevia for sale in the central market in Bujumbura, Burundi, on July 27, 2015.
Phil Moore

Around the time the boycott was announced, the standoff over stevia was resolved. “We came to an understanding with the department responsible for stevia," said Fabién Gahungu, Stevco’s head of agriculture and research. Since then, the number of stalls in the central market that sell stevia has grown every day. “It’s a plant that does its own PR!” Gahungu says. 

Unprocessed leaves parceled in gossamer-thin plastic bags are now sold all over the central market in Bujumbura. One baking hot day, people gathered in tight groups around sellers who spoke of stevia's “medicinal quality” for treating diabetes (a growing problem in central Africa), heart disease and weight gain. It was not only healthy, they said, but also comparable to — and significantly cheaper than — sugar. “A kilo of sugar costs 2,500 francs whereas a pack of stevia costs 500 francs — both last a week in my family,” says Louise Nshimirimana, mother of two, who boils it with milk and tea leaves.

The plant has also proven remarkably profitable. Vendor Noella Ngendakumana used to support her unemployed husband and two children by selling onions, which earned her less than a dollar a day. Then she bought a carrier bag full of stevia for 20,000 francs ($12.50) with her savings. She sold it that same day for 25,000 francs, turning a profit of more than $3 — more than four times the average per capita daily income in Burundi. She did the same thing the following four days. One of her colleagues, Marie, had been selling stevia for a week, and had already hired an employee to prepare and package the leaves. After paying her own employee 4,000 francs, Marie now takes home 6,000 francs (nearly $4) per day. 

Bayaganakandi, however, did not get to see any of this — he died of a heart attack three days after the presidential election.

Gahungu, Stevco’s head researcher, estimates that Bayaganakandi accomplished about 60 percent of his plan to establish stevia as a staple in Burundi. By the time of his death Stevco had plantations in ten of Burundi’s eighteen provinces and plans to expand into the remaining eight. It has also finished construction on the first of its two processing plants. As stevia’s domestic popularity continues to grow, it is possible that Bayaganakandi’s legacy won’t be linked to politics, but to the zero-calorie sweetener. Across the country, hundreds of stevia farmers are preparing to sell their first harvests.

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