Rooibos tea – Rooibostee

Rooibostee is ‘n handelsnaam verwant aan Suid-Afrika, spesifiek die Cederberge in die Wes-Kaap provinsie.   ‘n Unieke tee wat slegs hier voorkom in die Cederberge in Wes-Kaap. 
The Cederberg is the only place in the world where rooibos tea can be grown. To this remark, you’ll either say “Amazing, the only place in the world?” Or “What on earth is rooibos tea?” 

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) beyond the farm gate: From herbal tea to  potential phytopharmaceutical - ScienceDirect


What is Rooibos?

• Pronounced Royboss

• Mean red bush in Afrikaans – from the plant’s stem

• Used by South Africa’s indigenous KhoiSan people as a herbal remedy

• Only grows in 20,000 km sq of Suid Bokkeveld

• Main export markets are UK, Germany, Netherlands, the US and Japan

• Contains a wealth of minerals, including zinc, copper, calcium, magnesium and potassium


Making sense of access and benefit sharing in the rooibos industry: Towards a holistic, just and sustainable framing

Attention has now turned to South Africa’s most successful and oldest indigenous natural product industry—rooibos tea [Aspalathus linearis (Burm.f.) Dahlgren], and the array of new products that incorporate rooibos, such as cosmetics, slimming preparations, novel foods, extracts and flavourants. First commercialized at the turn of the 20th century, this is today a R300 million (US$22.2 million)4,5 local industry, employing some 5000 people and trading amounts of up to 15,000 tons per annum (DAFF, 2014). Although rooibos tea constitutes less than 0.3% of the global tea market, it represents 10% worldwide of the growing herbal tea market and 30.9% of the South African tea market (DAFF, 2014, Phakathi, 2016).

A suite of benefit-sharing agreements has been negotiated since the promulgation of the Biodiversity Act.   This was spearheaded to a large extent by the case of the succulent plant Hoodia gordonii (Masson) Sweet ex Decne, long used to stave off hunger and thirst by the indigenous San, the oldest—and most marginalized—human inhabitants of Africa (Deacon and Deacon, 1999, Lee et al., 2002, Wynberg and Chennells, 2009).

The active ingredients of the plant were patented in 1998 by the South African-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), alongside the negotiation of lucrative deals to develop anti-obesity products. This was done without the consent or knowledge of San communities, despite being based on their traditional knowledge. The CSIR was subsequently forced to negotiate with the South African San Council (hereafter referred to as the San Council), which represents the three indigenous San communities of South Africa—≠Khomani, !Xun and Khwe.2 This in turn led to a benefit-sharing agreement in 2003 (CSIR and South African San Council, 2003).

Although Hoodia was later abandoned as a commercial product due to safety and efficacy concerns (Blom et al., 2011), the case has been precedent-setting. Claiming to be primary traditional knowledge holders of all Southern African biodiversity, representatives of indigenous San and, more recently Khoi, are now at the frontline of many deals in the region. Sceletium tortuosum (L.) N.E. Br., for example, a succulent plant well known for its mood-enhancing properties, is the subject of a benefit-sharing agreement between the San Council and HG&H Pharmaceuticals (HG&H and the South African San Council, 2011). San Council benefits include 5% of net proceeds received by HG&H and an annual exclusivity payment of 1% on sales. In a similar example, an agreement between the San Council, the National Khoisan Council3 and a local pharmaceutical company (Cape Kingdom Nutraceuticals et al., 2013) gives the San and National Khoisan Councils 3% of the profits from products emerging from the use of buchu [Agathosma betulina (Bergius) Pillans and Agathosma crenulata (L.) Pillans], an essential oil used widely in international flavour and fragrance industries and also an important tonic, anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and diuretic (Moolla and Viljoen, 2008).

Fig. 2

Demand for rooibos increased, and Barend Ginsberg, with Olaf Bergh, a farmer friend and forefather of the current chief executive of Rooibos Limited, commenced experiments on the cultivation and processing of the tea. Research on rooibos cultivation continued in the 1920s, primarily through the efforts of Dr. P. le Fras Nortier, a medical doctor and amateur botanist, leading to improved methods and increased production of the tea. 

Again, local knowledge took the industry to new heights, this time through the efforts of Tryntjie Swarts, a local woman who worked at the farm Kleinvlei as a nanny for Olaf and later Cecil Bergh. James van Putten, a former employee of Rooibos Limited, recalled an interview with her in her old age in the 1970s:

When Dr. Nortier started planting tea he needed seed to be collected. The best way to do this was to lie on one’s tummy and use the wetted tip of a match to pick out seeds from the soil. One day Tryntjie was lying on her stomach and saw an ant collecting seed. The next day she told her husband Jan to bring a spade and they discovered heaps of seed in the ant burrows. She took spoonfuls and her rate of seed collection multiplied! The ant was doing its own selecting as it did not take green seed. At first, Tryntjie made sure Hans kept quiet about their find so they could reap the rewards. But “wine talks” and one evening after lots of wine she spilled the beans to a group of friends and everyone knew about the “golden nests (J. van Putten, pers. comm., 2000).

This find had economic benefits for Tryntjie Swarts, who was able to collect much more seed, at a going rate of £5 per matchbox. However, it had significantly more profound benefits for Ginsberg and the rooibos industry, which kept a tight control over seed supply as a means to ensure control over cultivation (Industry representative, pers. comm., 2001).

On the back of this discovery, together with technology advances, the industry was able to expand drastically, establish plantations and launch the first brand of rooibos tea, Eleven O’Clock (Dahlgren, 1968; J. van Putten, former employee of Rooibos Limited, pers. comm., 2000). Tryntjie Swarts’s contribution, however, remains largely unacknowledged, as does that of the original holders of knowledge about rooibos tea who, through the colonial laws of the Cape Colony, and later by apartheid, were largely confined to providing cheap labour for the industry, and prevented from acquiring land and creating economic opportunities.

The wooden block used by Tryntjie Swarts to scarify rooibos seeds and thus enable germination. The block is now displayed in the Clanwilliam Museum, with a tattered note that reads:

“Tryntjie Swarts se blok waarmee sy saad behandel het. Sy was die eerste person wat waargeneem het dat miere rooibosteesade versamel. Persoonlik oorhandig aan mnr JW van Putten.” (Tryntjie Swart’s block which she used to treat seed. She was the first person who observed that ants collect rooibos tea seed. Personally handed to Mr. JW van Putten). This kind of block was used from 1929 to 1965. Photo: Jaci van Niekerk.

Fig. 3



Circumstances vary considerably between producers in Wupperthal and those in the South Bokkeveld, although both have a long history of rooibos tea production.

The village of Wupperthal was established as a Moravian mission station in 1836 and has a population of some 2250 inhabitants, of whom about 500 live in the main settlement, the rest residing in 11 satellite stations in the mountains. More than half of the households receive annual incomes below US$2995 per annum, and there is generally a high reliance on rooibos tea, which contributes 55% to 68% of producer household income (Wynberg and Custers, 2005).


Land degradation is one among many environmental concerns raised by the cultivation of rooibos. Because the crop is an indigenous species, it is often promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional crop systems. However, this disregards the fact that thousands of hectares of natural mountain fynbos, constituting one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, are ploughed up every year for planting to monocultures of rooibos tea.

The footprint for cultivated rooibos has grown from 14,000 ha in 1991 to over 60,000 ha today (CAPE, 2006; Industry representative, pers. comm., 2016).

This has had devastating impacts on biodiversity. In just 12 years, there has been a 300% increase in the number of species threatened with extinction as a result of rooibos cultivation—from 37 taxa in 1997 to 149 taxa in 2009, with 57 species in the most severely threatened categories of “endangered” and “critically endangered” (Raimondo and Von Staden, 2009). Through the Rooibos Biodiversity Initiative and South African Rooibos Council (Pretorius, 2007), there is increasing awareness of the threats to biodiversity of this expansion, but it is important to strengthen such initiatives, with ABS providing a possible mechanism.

Chemical inputs are also a concern. Although rooibos is a low-input crop requiring little water or extra fertilizing, many commercial farmers spray plants with cypermethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide typically used to kill insects on cotton. Although touted by the industry as a pesticide which is non-toxic to mammals, evidence exists of toxicity to humans and laboratory animals, as well as to beneficial insects and other animals (Cox, 1996). Cypermethrin is also listed as a possible human carcinogen and is known to suppress the immune system and cause developmental delays (Cox, 1996). Glyphosate (Roundup), a non-selective herbicide used commonly in the rooibos industry to kill unwanted grasses and weeds when rooibos is grown in rotation with grain crops, is also known to have health side effects, having recently been pronounced a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization (Cressey, 2015).


The Khoi and San people have become the first indigenous people in the world to have their traditional knowledge recognised by industry.


In 1904, Benjamin Goldberg whose family were reportedly purveyors of tea to the Tzar, announced that the Cederberg would be the new Ceylon. But Rooibos is no ordinary tea and the Cederberg is no Ceylon. For starters, Rooibos flowers for only one month a year, in October. Each of its small yellow flowers produce only one small pod containing only one small hard-shelled dicotyledonous seed.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that a Khoi woman, Trytjie Swarts, following ants to their nest, found a seed granary – and inadvertently solved the riddle of germination. Building on her discovery, plant enthusiast Dr P Le Fras Nortier, found a way to scarify the seeds and by the 1930s Rooibos farming was a commercially viable option.  During World War II, when Ceylon tea became really scarce, Rooibos grew in popularity, entrenching itself in the wider South African psysche as a domestic beverage – sweet, cheap and family-friendly.  In short, underrated and overqualified.


After a long struggle to protect the rights of indigenous communities, a landmark decision has been taken by the Rooibos Industry to enter into negotiations with the Khoi and San as the associated traditional knowledge rights holders to the uses of Rooibos. An Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement is currently being concluded between the two parties based on mutually agreed terms in compliance with Nagoya Protocol. This documentary unpacks some of the key issues that arise due the commercialisation of genetic resources and explores the impact of this on indigenous communities and their associated traditional knowledge of such resources.

Recognition …



The industry behind the herbal tea rooibos has agreed to pay a percentage of the money that is made to the indigenous people who used the plant before production was industrialised.

South Africa’s KhoiSan people will now receive 1.5% of the value farmers get when they sell to the tea processor.   This could amount to roughly $650,000 (£500,000) a year.    The lawyer representing the San people told the BBC the industry-wide agreement is a “world first”.   “It has huge ramifications for the indigenous world and also for other industries where many many people can be brought under one agreement.

The agreement was signed between South Africa’s environment minister, the National KhoiSan Council, the San Council of South Africa and the South African Rooibos Council.
The KhoiSan are South Africa’s oldest inhabitants and are made up of a number of related communities: The Cape Khoi; the Nama; the Koranna; the Griqua and the San – who also often refer to themselves as bushmen.   Lesle Jansen, from environmental and human rights law firm Natural Justice, told the BBC that this agreement is not just about money but about recognition.   “This was very much a dignity issue and the recognition by the industry that the Khoi and San are the knowledge holders to the uses of rooibos.”  Descendants of Khoi people who live in rural farming communities in rooibos growing areas will get a portion of the money after it has been distributed in equal parts to the San Council and National KhoiSan Council




June 2019 article about colds and flu

Studies suggest that it has potent antioxidant, antiviral and immunomodulating effects, which enhances the body’s natural defence system.  Rooibos is packed with polyphenols, which are micronutrients with antioxidant activity. Polyphenols act as scavengers of free radicals throughout the body, which are detrimental by-products of cell metabolism that can cause a host of ailments. Aspalatin and nothafagin are two vital antioxidants found in Rooibos tea, making it a great beverage to boost immunity, whilst protecting the body against all types of diseases.



The research explores how rooibos could combat heart disease, skin disease, obesity, blood pressure, allergies and other ailments.    Could six cups of rooibos a day keep the doctor away?

The SA Rooibos Council (SARC) is investigating how rooibos tea could help tackle disease in a research initiative injected with R4.5 million.     SARC reasearch director Joe Swart explains that the research explores how rooibos could combat cardiovascular disease, skin disease, obesity, chronic inflammation, stress, blood pressure, allergies and other ailments.   Scientists will investigate the healing properties of the indigenous tea to help provide credible data about how it contributes to a healthy lifestyle.


The production process

Traditionally, the bunches of leaves were rolled into hessian bags and brought down from the mountain by donkeys.  The leaves and fine stems were then chopped with axes and bruised with mallets before being left in heaps to ferment. Once fermented, the Rooibos was spread out to dry in the hot African sun, ready for use as a thirst-quenching drink.   And it seems that not much has changed in this whole process, although methods are now far more refined and mechanised.

The modern production process…

The production of rooibos starts with the planting of seeds in well-prepared seedbeds in the late summer months of February and March. After the first rainfall in the cooler winter months of July and August, they transplant the seedlings. And voila! The first crop harvest is 18 months later. The annual harvest is from January to April. They cut the branches at 30 to 40cm above the ground. On average, 3 to 4 crops can be harvested from the same plantation.

The cuttings are bound into bundles for transportation to the processing yard. Now by vehicle! Here, they cut it to even lengths, bruise it, water it and leave it to air. Then they leave it to ferment in low heaps.   Now for the sciencey part! The process of enzymatic oxidation takes place during which the product changes from green, to its characteristic brick red colour. It then develops the distinctive flavour and sweet aroma of rooibos. Again they spread out the rooibos over large open yards to dry in the hot sun. 

Special machines collect the Rooibos and deliver it to the factory. Here they grade it according to length, colour, flavour and aroma. This guarantees a high quality across all grades. The last step is the screening, blending and steam treatment, now using state-of-the-art equipment. They actively monitor the process by laboratory testing to ensure bacteriological control. Then it can be certified as hygienic, safe, superior quality Rooibos tea.    They pack the finished bulk product into teabags or loose-leaf tea. ready for dispatch to wholesale customers all over the world. There it is often blended with other teas to make speciality teas. If you want to know more, see Rooibos Tea Ltd .   


• High in anti-oxidants – this aids in fighting cancer and other diseases, boosts the immune system and reduces aging (hooray!)
• Completely pure and natural as it contains no additives, preservatives or colourants.
• Naturally caffeine free and a low tannin beverage

The story of Rooibos – not just a tasty tea


Seed – Saad van Rooibostee


It takes roughly about 18 months before the bush can be harvested for the first time.

Rooibos tea celebrates its 115th  anniversary as a branded product but it is older than 115 years! The first Rooibos brand was launched by Benjamin Ginsberg from his general dealer shop in Clanwilliam and is still sold today.


The Magic of Rooibos tea made in South Africa


Growing only in South Africa – Western Cape.

Rooibos really only grows in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape. Although farmers have tried to grow it elsewhere in the world, the climate, soil and conditions just aren’t conducive.     In 2014, Rooibos received geographical indicator (GI) status, which means that tea can only be called Rooibos if it comes from a defined area in the Cederberg and surrounds.  It’s a proudly South African product, which is exported to more than 30 countries across the globe.



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