Updated on July 10, 2019
Rooibos isn’t your average tea. Hailing from a very specific region in South Africa, it was popularized in the 1930s and is now a well-loved herbal tea all around the world. It also happens to be part of the UTZ program since 2010. Today, we share everything you need to know about this unique tea, from how it is grown to the environmental and social challenges we are tackling with the UTZ Rooibos program.
Where is Rooibos produced?
Rooibos, also known as ‘redbush’ or ‘African red tea’, is indigenous to the Cederberg region, north-west of Cape Town, South Africa. This is the only place where the plant grows naturally. With its coarse and acidic soils, hot and dry summers and a winter rainfall between 200 mm and 700 mm per year, it is the perfect climate for the plant.
The plant resembles a grassy bush, with green leaves and yellow flowers. The distinctive red color of the tea comes from fermentation outside in the sun during processing. Locals in this area have been brewing tea from the leaves of the Rooibos bush for centuries.
How is Rooibos grown?
Rooibos seeds are collected from the soils of mature Rooibos fields and planted between February and March of each year. After 18 months, the Rooibos plant reaches maturity and is ready to be pruned for the first time. Harvest occurs once a year thereafter in the summer months, from January to April.
For traditional red Rooibos, the leaves are then bruised with rollers to initiate the fermentation process and afterwards left in piles to ferment. This process changes the green leaves into their characteristic dark red color and gives them a deeper and stronger flavor. After fermentation, the leaves are spread out to dry under the sun. For green Rooibos, the leaves are immediately dried to prevent oxidation and preserve the green color and lighter flavor. After drying, Rooibos is sorted and graded by length, color, flavor and aroma. The final step before shipping is pasteurization to kill any bacteria and ensure a high quality and safety standard. A Rooibos plant is only commercially viable for three to five harvests. After which, the plant is removed and the field undergoes a period of rotational cropping before new seedlings are planted. This process can take around eight years in total.
Who are the producers?
According to a 2015 Case Study, there are an estimated 580 producers who grow Rooibos tea. Currently, 99.5% of all Rooibos is cultivated, with the remaining 0.5% harvested from the wild mostly by small farmers. In total, there are around 5,000 people employed by the sector, either working on farms or at the processing facilities. Commercial farmers account for more than 90% of production. For many small scale farmers, Rooibos is their main source of income.
Challenges facing the sector
Since Rooibos is only grown in the Cape Floral Region, which was registered in 2004 as a World Heritage Site, production is heavily regulated and permits for expansion are rarely given. This means producers need to find ways to optimize their output on existing land. With increased drought and changing weather patterns due to climate change, this can be especially challenging. Most notably, a severe drought in 2015 and 2016 severely impacted yields across the region. Further, since Rooibos is grown in a semi-arid area and therefore is not irrigated, it is even more dependent on the weather. Other challenges in the sector include high input costs, price fluctuations due to an imbalance in supply and demand and a lack of a regulatory body and cooperation among different stakeholders.
What are we doing about it?
The UTZ Rooibos Program was launched in 2010. The goal is to link local efforts to international markets and improve agricultural practices that increase yield and quality while also protecting workers’ rights and the environment. The UTZ Rooibos program currently includes 5 processors, one PDI (previously disadvantaged individual) farmer and 9 commercial producers. Program members receive support in creating better record keeping systems, safer and cleaner working conditions, better Integrated Pest Management techniques and healthier environmental practices. Curious to see Rooibos farming in action? Check out our Rooibos series on YouTube.
Join the Program
With demand for Rooibos on the rise, this is a market of increasing importance for the UTZ program moving forward. Are you convinced sustainable Rooibos is the way forward for your company? Join our program today!