Nickly Kipkorir, a 23-year-old university student, has opened a factory to process stevia (a natural sweetener) in Kitengela near Nairobi, looking to provide a service which is mostly available in countries like China and Malaysia.
Mr Kipkorir, who also farms the crop, said he did not understand why the plant which is gaining popularity in the country has to be shipped abroad for processing and the extract later exported for sale.
The law student raised money for setting up the factory from savings made from farming on his five-acre farm.
The Public Health ministry and the Kenya Bureau of Standards issued him a licence in July.
“I installed a stevia extractor which simply separates the sweetener from the fibre then we package the final product in powder form for sale,” Mr Kipkorir told the Business Daily.
“I collect an average of one tonne of dried stevia leaves every three weeks,” he said.
Global demand for the sweetener has been rising as more beverage makers switch to the crop as a response to health-conscious consumers.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi have began using stevia to sweeten their soft drinks. The confectionary industry’s demand for the sweetener has also been growing rapidly.
Stevia is a fairly new plant to most African countries. It was introduced in Kenya in 2009 and is grown in areas like Kericho, Nandi, Nakuru, Laikipia, Uasin Gishu, Narok, Meru and Bungoma.
Mr Kipkorir, through his company Stevia Kenya, helps farmers to collect and transport their produce from farms in the South Rift, Centraland Western Kenya counties to his new factory.
He currently provides a ready market to over 50 small-scale stevia farmers, paying them Sh150 per kilogramme.
“The commodity was initially shipped to China where the sweetener was extracted before being processed in Malaysia,” Mr Kipkorir told Enterprise.
“I doubt if there is any stevia factory in Africa,” he added.
His target customers are bakeries and beverage makers based in Nairobi and Mombasa. The entrepreneur, who has so far employed five workers, said his aim is to begin exporting the product when he hits his target of collecting a tonne every day.
Stevia Kenya has also began importing seedlings from Malaysia for onward sale to farmers at Sh5 each. Once planted, the crop takes only two months to mature.
International companies have been investing in stevia farming across the country.
PureCircle, a Malaysian company which farms the crop in Kericho County, recently completed a Sh3.87 billion cash call to help it expand the business in the country and in Paraguay where it also grows the crop.
READ: Malaysia firm raises funds for Kenya dealings
The firm began growing stevia in Kericho in 2012 but has already expanded to Meru, Bungoma and Uasin Gishu counties with plans to begin operations in Kiambu.
The company has contracted some 4,000 farmers to supply it with 20,000 tonnes of stevia monthly for export.
A number of studies show that stevia offers some relief for illnesses including high blood pressure, diabetes, indigestion and heartburn, cold and flu, as well as teeth problems. It can also help in weight loss.
It has anti-bacteria and anti-oxidant components which can prevent wrinkles, dandruff and hair loss.
Fresh stevia leaves can be used as a sweetener in beverages, such as tea, or as an edible food garnish.