In autumn 2019, Georgios, Sunna and Mara spent several weeks at Stevia Hellas, one of the RurAction project partners in Greece. Stevia Hellas is a farmer cooperative producing stevia-products in the Phthiotis region in Central Greece. This is traditionally an agricultural region where olives, tobacco and cotton are grown. The region has to deal with high levels of unemployment and sees a lot of the younger people move away from the rural towns and villages to bigger cities outside the region in search for work.
When the EU implemented a program to discourage tobacco growth, further unemployment was glooming around the corner. However, the stevia-plant seemed to be able to provide a solution. This plant thrives under similar conditions as tobacco, and thanks to its super-sweet leaves it is used as a healthy replacement for sugar. The cooperative Stevia Hellas was founded in 2011, and currently it has 55 farmer-members producing for the cooperative. The stevia leaves are harvested and sold to industry (e.g. as a natural sweetener of soft drinks and sweets) as well as directly to consumers as ready-made products
During our visit, it was interesting to experience how Stevia Hellas has succeeded in creating a positive shift out of the dominant tobacco industry, by drawing on experience and farming traditions in the region. By replacing the tobacco cultivations with that of stevia, farmers still draw on the knowledge about cultivating their land built up over generations. Traditions and knowledge can be maintained and utilized, while providing a ground for innovation. It shows for young farmers in the area, that it is still possible to build a sustainable living from the land.
The ambition from the people involved in Stevia Hellas does not stop here. The organization acknowledges that there is still a high level of unemployment in the region and has therefore co-founded the NGO ‘BridgeHub’ to tackle the challenge on their part. Bridgehub´s aim is to stimulate innovative solutions for career opportunities, entrepreneurship, education and civic engagement especially for the women in the region.
During our stay, we have been assisting Stevia Hellas with a methodology for a workshop to bring the women in the region together and discuss common solutions to their challenges. We also brought up some potentially inspiring examples from other social and ecological enterprises we have encountered during our work at the project. Finally, we have familiarized ourselves with methods to measure and report about the social impact of an organization and briefed Stevia Hellas about suitable indicators for their work.
Another added benefit for some of us was that due to the language barrier, you have to rethink how you explain what you do. This happened when we visited the countryside with local buses. As we were almost only customers in the bus, there was time to talk with the bus driver instead. While explaining, what brings us to the region, we got some philosophical questions like “what is research?” A great lesson in getting to the core of your work in just a few simple words!
We would like to thank Stevia Hellas for the hospitality during our stay and wish both Stevia Hellas and BridgeHub the very best in realize all their goals.
Sunna, Mara and Georgios
See also: Blogpost Stevia Hellas Cooperative
Photo credit: Stevia Hellas Cooperative