- Rooibos, Aspalathus linearis, is a natural herb found in the Cape fynbos biome. It is cultivated commercially mainly in the Cedarberg region north west of Cape Town. The plant thrives on coarse sandy soil and winter rainfall.
- It is called rooibos ('red bush') or Red Tea because of its colour when dried. It has a refreshing flavour and sweetish aroma, is caffeine-free and lower in tannin than black and other teas. Its anti-allergy, antioxidant and antimutagenic properties make it a healthy alternative to most hot drinks.
- Rooibos and honeybush teas (see separate chapter) and their health properties are valued in beverages, food flavourants, functional foods, nutraceuticals and cosmetics. Exports could be further developed through new value-added products while, as the website http://rooibos-route.co.za shows, agro-tourism also represents a development opportunity.
2. International business environment
- Traditionally grown in South Africa, in the Cederberg mountains north of Cape Town, rooibos is today worth an estimated R600-million. South Africa began exporting the tea in 1904.
- Rooibos’ popularity has greatly increased which led to companies abroad in America and France making audacious bids to trademark the name. After negotiations, South Africa won geographic indicator status giving rooibos tea manufacturers of South Africa which will have ownership of that particular name and that term will be applicable only to products that come from this country. (Geographic indicator status is enjoyed by the likes of champagne, Darjeeling tea and Colombian coffee).
- The same trademark protection will apply to honeybush, another tea indigenous to the Cape region, and Karoo lamb. In turn Pretoria was forced to make a concession on feta cheese which has been protected since 2002.
South Africa: imports and exports
The annual A Profile of the South African Rooibos Market Value Chain (see heading 7) over several pages analyses the major export destinations of rooibos tea from South Africa.
3. Local business environment
- Rooibos provides income and employment to more than 5 000 people in South Africa
- On average, about 14 000 tons of Rooibos are produced in South Africa per year
- The demand for and consumption of Rooibos in South African has grown over the past years and in 2015 reached around 8000 tons
- The increasing global demand for Rooibos pushed exports up to more than 6 000 tons per annum
- If both the export and local volumes are sold and enjoyed as pure Rooibos, this would be equal to 5,6 billion cups of tea
- Rooibos is exported to more than 30 countries across the globe. Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America are the biggest importers of Rooibos.
- The prolonged drought in the Western Cape is having a devastating effect on this sector.
The Rooibos Industry Fact Sheet 2017, prepared by the Rooibos Council, provides a very useful overview of rooibos production in the country. http://sarooibos.co.za/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/20170706-SARC-Fact-Sheetv2.pdf
The annual A Profile of the South African Rooibos Market Value Chain (see heading 7), as the name suggests, takes a comprehensive look at the rooibos tea value chain, which includes a SWOT analysis.
4. For the newcomer
Rooibos seeds are sown between February to March and the seedlings transplanted a few months later. It takes about 18 months before plants can be harvested for the first time. Each spring the plant is covered with small yellow flowers. Each flower produces a small legume with a single seed inside. The Rooibos seeds pop out when they are ripe and can therefore be difficult to collect. Early Rooibos farmers got hold of the local wisdom that ants harvested the seeds and that they could collect Rooibos seeds from anthills. Today, most farmers collect the seeds by sifting the sand around the plants.
During the summer harvest, the plants are cut to about 30 cm from the ground. After three to five harvests, the Rooibos plantation must be re-established.
The harvested shoots are bound into sheaves and cut to less than 4 mm. The green leaves and stems are either bruised and “fermented” in heaps (to produce traditional Rooibos) or immediately dried to prevent oxidation (for green Rooibos). The “fermentation” process involves oxidation, brought about by enzymes naturally present in the plant. During this process the product changes from green to a deep amber colour and develops its distinctive aroma. After fermentation the Rooibos is spread out to dry in the sun.
The Rooibos is sorted and graded according to length, colour, flavour and aroma. All Rooibos, whether for domestic use or the export market, is steam pasteurized to ensure a product of high microbial quality. The product is then sent in bulk (loose tea leaves) to various packers and exporters in South Africa.
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