Stevia is a natural sweetener derived from the stevia plant (Stevia rebaudiana). Native to Brazil and Paraguay, stevia has been used to sweeten foods and beverages since the 16th century. It is currently gaining popularity as a sugar substitute due to its low calorie and low carbohydrate content.
In the Philippines, stevia is often considered a specialty health food, accessible only to people with disposable income. But one farm aims to make stevia mainstream by making it affordable and developing household staples that incorporate this diabetic-friendly sweetener.
Glorious Industrial and Development Corporation (GIDC), the company that manages the Karilagan Stevia farm in Bulacan, was established in 2004, two years after the farm started.
Maura David de Leon, President and CEO of GIDC, decided to start a stevia farm after her older sister suffered a stroke. Already a businesswoman, de Leon wondered if she could start a business selling health products. A doctor friend introduced him to stevia. As de Leon came from a family of rice farmers, the idea of starting a farm interested him.
De Leon is no stranger to trade. She started an embroidery business at the age of 28, taking advantage of Bulacan’s popularity as an embroidery center. The company closed 15 years later, unable to compete with cheap Chinese imports, although they were sometimes of questionable quality. She then ventured into the chemical business, eventually producing home and bath products for a private label of a national grocery chain.
Cultivated in Bulacan
Karilagan Stevia Farm is approximately five hectares spread over five farms, three in Pandi and two in Bocaue, Bulacan, not including one property in Nueva Ecija ready for planting.
When they started their model farm in Bocaue, they tried to plant stevia from different local and foreign farms, but ultimately settled on a variety from Paraguay, which they acclimatized and then had certified by the Bureau of Plant Industry. “It’s like caring for a child,” says de Leon in Tagalog, “if the child is hungry, he cries. If stevia plants are hungry, they wilt. If they get too much water, they wilt. If they get too much sun, they wilt. We had to keep experimenting [on how to care for it].”
It took four years of constant experimentation. De Leon almost gave up, until a conversation with his father renewed his resolve to continue. When she told him she was giving up, her father showed her a painting she had given him of a farmer and his carabao in the field. He said, “Look, the carabao is bigger than the farmer.” De Leon says that statement made her not give up on her goal of running a stevia farm that employs local farmers.
Karilagan Stevia Farm uses natural farming practices. De Leon says they had plans for organic certification, but those were put on hold due to the pandemic. They produce their own fertilizer from agricultural waste, supplemented with cow dung, vermicompost and other organic materials they buy from trusted farms in Pangasinan.
Research and development
GIDC has about 200 employees, including farm families who have about 30 working people, in its agricultural and manufacturing businesses. GIDC manufactures its own products and offers custom manufacturing services for companies that use stevia in their products.
“[Research and development] was the most expensive,” de Leon reveals. But it paid off. GIDC offers a line of products including individually packaged stevia sweeteners (distributed under Sweet n’ Fit stevia beans) and stevia-sweetened instant iced tea, coffee and hot chocolate. “Imagine, a family drinks a liter [of iced tea] and the usual gram of sugar is 50g per litre, but with stevia it’s just four or five grams,” she says. Apart from the products mentioned earlier, the brand also offers malunggay coffee, brown rice coffee, and stevia tea.
Stevia powder can also be a flavor enhancer, which is why GIDC has also developed sweet baked goods with stevia and is currently trying to incorporate it into savory dishes.
Products are made on site in a factory next to the model farm, which was set up with the help of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). They are particularly proud of their spray dryer, which turns liquid stevia extract into powder. “It took us eight years to get a CPR (Food and Drug Administration Certificate of Product Registration) from the FDA,” says de Leon. Their perseverance paid off. Sweet n’ Fit Stevia is the first FDA-approved local brand of stevia.
Getting customers to try what was then a new product was another challenge. De Leon says the real reason GIDC sells so many products is because no one knew what stevia was and therefore was hesitant to use it, so she decided to make her own products, using mostly local ingredients, to prove them wrong. This is how the Glorious Blends brand was born. De Leon is particularly proud of its 3-in-1 coffee, which contains 14 or 21 grams of coffee and is sugar-free.
They had better luck with institutions, the Philippine Heart Center and the Manila Hotel being two of their first clients. “A dietician at the Hearth Center knew what stevia was and vouched for us, so all the other hospitals were calling him to check,” de Leon says. “And once [potential clients] heard we were at the manila hotel, [it was easier for them to say yes].”
Brands currently sourcing stevia from GDICS include Duche Chocolate, Lily’s Peanut Butter and Better Than Ice Cream.
Business and Advocacy
The businesswoman adds that none of her plans for the stevia farm would have been possible without the support of her husband and children. She admits that developing the farm and products has been difficult in part because she has treated it as a hobby rather than a business. That changed when her children stepped in to help manage her. Each of his five children play a role in running the business alongside their own personal efforts. Now the business has become profitable. “I just have to follow what [my children] say,” she jokes.
The model farm now also has a Filipino-themed event pavilion, complete with a bahay na bato, the traditional colonial stone house, which can be rented for celebrations.
A portion of the proceeds from the farm goes to a fund used to support academics, many of whom have graduated as professionals, as well as to help marginalized people and communities and disaster-affected areas.
De Leon hopes to make Glorious Blend a local mainstream brand and export it as well. She also hopes more local brands will consider using stevia as a natural sweetener.
From the very beginning, starting the farm has always been about helping people and to this day, that is still what de Leon enjoys most about his job. “[I love that I am able to] touch lives,” she says. “When [the people we’ve helped] ask how they can refund us, I tell them to just pass it on.
Photos courtesy of GIDC
Learn more about agriculture and gardening at agriculture.com.ph
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