Lamia, Greece – At an event on the topic of Rural Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Lamia Cultural, Scientific, and Philosophical Association “300” presented the 2019 “Thermopylae” Award to the Stevia Hellas Agricultural Cooperative for its innovative agricultural practices and continued development of the Fthiotida region.
“We don’t have a business culture in Greece, and that’s why we don’t have words for many business ideas that exist in American culture,” said Association President Dr. Panagiotis Iakovis, who presented the award to Stevia Hellas CEO Christos Stamatis. “Innovation is a state of mind, and all too often, the fear of failure in Greece prevents people from taking advantage of their ideas.
Based in Lamia, the Stevia Hellas Agricultural Cooperative stands out as a success story for its innovative production and management model. The only large-scale producer of stevia across Europe, Stevia Hellas was founded in 2011 with 47 producers and a 10-member management team. The Cooperative focuses on the cultivation and standardization of stevia products and has invested in producing top quality products.
“Lamia used to be known for its tobacco farms,” said Quality Assurance Manager Stella Dampasi, an agronomist and one of the Coop’s founding members. “My grandfather, father, and mother grew tobacco. It was a family business, and I remember working in the tobacco fields. But in 2009, 2010, tobacco cultivation stopped.” In 2008, the local government conducted stevia experiments with a few farmers in the area, including Stella’s father. “We read that in California, tobacco farmers became stevia farmers,” Stella said. “We thought it would not be difficult to grow stevia because it uses the same techniques as tobacco, but since it’s food, we have to be more careful.”
Stevia is a natural sweetener and zero-calorie sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant native to Brazil and Paraguay. “Stevia is a 5-year cultivation, Stella said. “You cut it, and it regrows.” The plant is harvested in the summer months, when the leaves have the sweetest taste. At the end of March, the stevia fields were yielding their first leaves, and I could already taste their sweetness.
“We started out of a small container in the village of Stirfaka, and we visited many of the locals here to convince them to join us,” recalls Christos Stamatis, the charismatic CEO of Stevia Hellas. “It wasn’t easy, but a lot of people were convinced that stevia would be a great alternative to tobacco cultivation.”
Leonidas Zervas, the President of the Board of Stevia Hellas and the former president of the Board of tobacco producers in Greece, asked Christos to help out with the lifecycle management, promotion, and sustainability of the stevia product. Stevia had never been cultivated in the EU, so that first year involved gaining cultivation experience and getting through the EU bureaucracy to grow stevia. “We started importing seeds from different countries like the US, Canada, and Israel, and trying them in different fields,” Christos said. “We had success but also lots of failure.”
“Stevia Hellas was the first stevia point in Europe,” said Ilias Kalfas, Project Leader of New Agriculture for a New Generation’s “Small Farm Adoption” Program at the American Farm School. “They were pioneers. The EU did not have any regulations related to Stevia, so they cleared the way in terms of cultivation techniques, pesticides, etc. in Europe.”
While Stella learned about stevia cultivation, Christos visited European summits to create the right business model so that the Coop could develop sustainably. “Finding the seed capital was a challenge,” Christos said. “So we invested ourselves: we crowdsourced, and everyone contributed the same amount. We started with 50-70 thousand euros.”
“Our Coop is committed to selling the final product, not the raw product,” Christos said. “We produce three stevia products: first there are the dry stevia leaves, whole or crushed, that are ideal for teas, or as a sweetener in cooking. Then there is pure stevia powder, which is 250-400 times sweeter than sugar and ideal for industrial use in sodas and juices, by companies like Kri Kri, Green Cola, and Olympus. Third, there’s crystal stevia, which is now sold in all Greek supermarkets as a table sweetener. A teaspoon of stevia is three times as sweet as a teaspoon of sugar. Both the pure and crystal stevia are processed by a friend’s company in Lyon, France, so we have 100% European products, cultivated here in Greece.”
Stevia Hellas is now the leading Stevia producer across Europe with 60 producers, mostly from Ligaria and Lianokladi. At the end of 2017, the Coop moved into its current building in Lamia, which includes a meeting room, kitchen area, and final products area. “As we say in my village, the sky’s the limit,” Christos said. “The demand is huge, and we have to fulfill the needs of our customers. That means more collaborations, more fields, more producers.”
The Coop is known for its active role in the rural development of the region. “We focus on and invest in people,” Christos said. “We continuously train our members in rural sustainable development through our participation in European RurInno & RurAction Programs. Our new producers receive training through the New Agriculture for a New Generation Program. Stella and Stefanos Papapostolou, a founding member and one of our biggest producers, became beneficiaries of the NANG program in 2018. They are learning about what steps we need to take to certify our fields for organic cultivation. We also want to enhance women’s entrepreneurship and encourage more women to work for the Coop. Thirty percent of our producers are women, including our two top-yielding producers.”
“The New Agriculture for a New Generation program is the opportunity of a lifetime, one of the biggest investments in my country, and we have to take advantage of it,” Christos said. “I strongly believe that cooperative educationmust be a part of this program. If we don’t collaborate, how can we compete? We need to focus on synergies and the cooperative movement, focus on the sharing economy and producing more with less. There’s so much potential here.” He spoke with passion and conviction, and it was clear to me how much he loved Lamia.
“Many of our producers are young people with a new way of thinking,” Christos said. “They are highly skilled in different sectors. I know these people, I was born here. I am deeply embedded in this sector. I’ve spent a decade working at the Cooperative, and I’ve overcome challenges and difficulties. I want to pass this knowledge down to young people. I’m in a good position to start sharing my expertise.”