Rooibos: Hot Tea, Hot Commodity


If you’re a tea lover who’s familiar with only black and green teas, it’s time to acquaint yourself with red tea—also known as rooibos tea. Brewed from the leaves of its namesake plant, rooibos boasts a subtle but distinctive taste that its many fans enjoy—the tea is exported to over 30 countries, resulting in approximately 6,000 tonnes exported worldwide every year.

This herbal drink, however, offers more than an impressive flavour profile. A quick online search will yield hundreds of results associating this simple tea with a myriad of health benefits, ranging from the prevention of diabetes to easing of allergies. Although these claims have not yet been scientifically proven, researchers have found antioxidant and antimicrobial properties associated with the plants. Other studies have found a correlation between drinking rooibos tea and better health outcomes, such as lowered cholesterol levels, improved reproductive functions, and enhanced anti-inflammatory effects. The tea has been touted in the media as a trendy superfood, no doubt due to its appeal to the health-conscious. 

Rooibos Production

Unlike most other tea varieties that can be grown and cultivated in multiple countries, rooibos tea is sourced solely from South Africa. Rooibos grows in a small parcel of land in the mountainous Cederberg region of the country, thriving under harsh heat in sandy soils. It’s also an extremely labour-intensive crop, and processing the plants is still largely done by hand. For traditional rooibos tea, workers bruise and wet the harvested leaves as part of the oxidation process to encourage the release of flavours and compounds. The leaves are then dried in the sun before being graded and sent to exporters for further processing. 

In general, commercial tea plantations are known for low wages, limited worker rights, and unsafe working conditions. And like other teas, the majority of rooibos isHuman Rights produced on large plantations. However, a few operations have managed to flourish despite their smaller size. The Wupperthal Original Rooibos Cooperative is one of them. For many of Wupperthal’s farmers, growing and cultivating rooibos is a family trade, passed down from previous generations. Deeply committed to the principles of fair trade, the co-operative achieved certification in the late 1990s. This freed them from conventional distribution methods, allowing them to negotiate directly with fair trade buyers.

Liz Bandelin, who founded the BC-based Nu-Tea in 2003, sources her rooibos tea from the Driefontein Small Farmers Co-op. Located about 200 km north of Cape Town, this farm boasts a host of certifications, Fairtrade and USDA Organic among them. The 36 farmer-members, as they’re called, founded their business using the Fairtrade model in 2010. It’s a stark difference from life at conventional rooibos farms. As Bandlelin puts it, “The farmers have pride of ownership, a say in the future of the co-op, and earn a higher income. In the conventional farming model, the farmers have no ownership and receive a lower wage for their labour. The Fairtrade model gives them extra income to pay for a better quality of life and education for their children.”

The Legacy of Apartheid

Through co-operative agriculture, fair trade provides business and land ownership opportunities for black South Africans, who were all but prevented from owning land under apartheid laws. Yet the success of these small co-operatives is threatened by large-scale rooibos farms entering the fair trade market. While there are solid reasons to certify these operations, a particularly delicate issue arises in the case of rooibos tea. Intentionally or not, the presence of tea plantations in the fair trade rooibos market puts emerging producers at risk. Plantations benefit from economies of scale, broader access to financial resources, and greater clout in the market.

In addition, since the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, the South African government has introduced a number of policies intended to help reduce economic inequalities between its racial groups. In some cases, these policies place their focus on farms that use hired labour—at the exclusion of smaller co-operatives, dampening the intended equalizing effects that fair trade can offer these operations.

Changing with the Climate

Doi ChaangRooibos farmers face other challenges as well. Because the crop grows in only one part of the world, it is particularly sensitive to the realities of climate change. While studies on the topic are limited, informal reports from farmers in the region indicate a change in the moisture levels of the soil, requiring the farmers to modify their techniques to retain water. Several studies show that the distribution of rooibos plants has begun migrating to higher latitudes and elevations, likely to cope with the increase in temperatures. While the impacts of climate change are still unknown, many models forecast an overall contraction in rooibos appropriate soils. Because the rooibos industry is worth about US$40 million and employs thousands of South Africans, its future viability is exceptionally important.

As with other fair trade commodities, there is still much work to be done. Rooibos farmers are aware of the challenges they face and many are making provisions accordingly. While the impacts of climate change may be an unfortunate inevitability, adapted farming techniques may mitigate some of the negative effects. Some studies also suggest that distribution of rooibos growth will shift rather than just contract, reducing the overall loss of suitable land.

Several of the farm co-operatives have worked to solidify their positions in the market by expanding their activities to include processing and packaging. The Wupperthal co-operative in particular is partnered with Equal Exchange, a US-based fair trade distributor that also works to raise awareness and strengthen the ethical principles behind the movement. Awareness and action are vital to the change process. While there are areas that undoubtedly require further attention and negotiation, there are also signs of progress, and much to be hopeful about.

Author: Kimberly Leung is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a special interest in sustainable and ethical living.

Originally published in Fair Trade Magazine - Summer/Fall 2018 Edition