KERICHO, Kenya-Thanks to a partnership between WOCCU, Ndege Chai Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO), or credit union, and PureCircle Kenya Ltd. (PCK), Kenyan farmers in Kericho, northwest of Nairobi, are now growing stevia, a natural sweetener that could one day overtake its artificial counterparts, especially that used in sodas.

Stevia, a member of the sunflower family, has its origins in South America and can be found growing as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Sometimes known as "sweetleaf" or "sugarleaf," stevia's leaves have a natural sweetness 30 to 45 times that of regular sugar.

After two years of testing, PCK, wholly owned by PureCircle Ltd., the world's leading supplier of natural high intensity sweetener ingredients, started contracting stevia growers in 2009. Under a business partnership with Kenya's Ndege Chai SACCO, these growers join the SACCO and receive loans earmarked to support stevia growth. Thanks to funding supplied by USDA, WOCCU has helped the SACCO finance these rural farmers, as well as provide the SACCO with assistance necessary to develop an agricultural lending unit and technological support for agriculture loan underwriting and administration.

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