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Stevia queen blazes new path to market health, wellness product amid pandemic | BusinessMirror

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To keep businesses afloat amid the Covid-19 pandemic, companies must learn to promote health and wellness and innovate products to retain jobs of employees.

These are the realizations of entrepreneur and health advocate Maura de Leon, popularly dubbed as the queen of stevia, who pioneered Sweet and Fit, the country’s first sweetener extracted from the stevia plant.

“The pandemic is pushing people to be conscious of their health, and opt for organic products,” said de Leon in an interview with The BusinessMirror. “The market behavior change should serve as an opportunity to improve products, and help our employees keep their jobs during the crisis.”

Stevia plant belongs to the sunflower family and can be used as a healthy alternative to sugar. The leaves of the South American shrub have been used to sweeten beverages in countries like Brazil and Paraguay.

De Leon started stevia farming in Bocaue and Pandi in Bulacan, heeding the advice from a friend, with an initial 50 employees. The farms have grown to over 200,000 stevia plants now.

New skills

The company aims to provide farmers with new skills by providing them training and hands-on assistance in preparing farm, and seedlings.

Over the years, the number of stevia farmers has grown to 200 and de Leon’s company is now supporting 50 scholars in Bicol and Pangasinan.

She obtained a certificate of registration from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2008 and started the Sweet and Fit, the first Philippine sweetener extracted from powdered Stevia plant under her company, Glorious Industrial and Development Corp. (GIDC).

Tie ups with start-ups

De Leon said introducing a local organic sweetener was not easy as she had to compete with popular imported brands. Such challenge inspired her to explore partnerships with local food brands by attending trade shows, food bazaars, as well as sports and wellness lectures. 

The company applied for assistance to put up research and development (R&D) from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to help the company develop new products.

The initiative helped the company develop new line of food and non-food products. “The acceptance is wide because of the ISO 9000 accreditation,” said de Leon.

“It is important to reach out, and to partner particularly with local start-ups so we can strengthen our businesses together,” said de Leon.

Main drivers of success

The International Labor Organization (ILO) score program survey conducted last June revealed that micro-, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) have been hit the hardest during the pandemic. But the sector matter most during the crisis as it represents more than 70 percent of global employment and 50 percent of gross domestic product.

The ILO survey cited that seven out of ten MSMES are the first that have to reduce production and retrench workers. It cited that MSMEs have also asked workers to take unpaid leave, work for reduced pay (20 percent of those surveyed), or even by laying off permanent staff (10 percent of those surveyed).

Also, at least one-third, or 30 percent, of MSMEs report a shortage of workers resulting from containment measures, family care responsibilities, or fear of infection. These are alarming statistics for those concerned about working conditions in MSMEs, said the ILO.

De Leon said product innovations R&D and ISO 9000 accreditation helped her company afloat, and even expanded even during the pandemic.

“Our advocacy to help farmers and their families continue to inspire us to be strong despite the challenges of the pandemic,” said de Leon.

The GIDC has been able to hire additional 5,000 members of Sangguniang Kabataan as marketing officers for the new products.

“Behind the success of stevia are the farmers and their families who continue to have improved lives, and the local consumers who gain from health benefits of organic sweetener,” said de Leon.

This content was originally published here.

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