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July 26, 2010

South African cooperative turns to wild rooibos over cultivated variety

When rooibos, South Africa's naturally caffeine-free tea, made the jump from health food store to supermarket staple it provided a lifeline for a small group of indigenous farmers. Then drought and the entry of commercial growers into the market threatened them with ruin. But they are fighting back by planting wild rooibos.

George Kotze's great, great, great- grandparents were among the first farmers to grow rooibos tea in South Africa's wild and desolate Western Cape, the only place in the world where the bushes are found.

Despite great hardship, including losing their land to European settlers and discrimination under apartheid, the Khoisan community have been growing the tea ever since.

"Uncle George", as the field workers call him, is on his way to meet the other farmers at the "tea court" at the Heiveld tea co-operative, where they come together to chop, ferment and dry their rooibos tea. It's a bumpy one-hour drive over gravel roads, which usually wash away when the winter rains come. Although it is only lunchtime, 66-year-old George has already walked 52km to Nieuwoudtville, the closest town, and back. He got up at 2am to walk by the light of the moon just to buy a bar of soap.

Tea farmer Drieka Kotze, 49, worked as a labourer on white-owned commercial tea farms until 1986, when she came back to her tiny family homestead to work her land. Gesturing to a point beyond the horizon, she says: "It is better here than on a white farm because we are no longer onderdruk [oppressed]. But my family is not originally from here. We owned the Sewefontein farm over there. Whites took it from us in 1870."

In 2003, Heiveld, set in around 400 square metres of drought-prone land on the Sud Bokkeveld, a five-hour drive from Cape Town, was one of two small farmer co-operatives in South Africa supplying 100% of the organic, fair trade rooibos market. But now large-scale commercial farmers dominate the market.

"They've taken away Heiveld's market share and had a strong downward impact on prices," says Noel Oettle, rural programmes manager at the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG), a local NGO that helped Heiveld set up as a co-operative in 2000.

To make matters worse, changing climate conditions are threatening production.

When a major drought hit the area in 2003, the springs upon which the farmers had always depended for water dried up and the tea plants' three-metre-deep tap roots were unable to draw moisture from the soil. By the time the drought broke three years later many plants had died.

At that time, they were growing cultivated rooibos, which originates on the Cedarberg mountain range about 150km away. "Cultivated rooibos grows very fast and produces a lot of seed but needs a regular, high rainfall," said Oettle.

So the Khoisan turned to wild rooibos, the plant discovered by their ancestors.

Dr Rhoda Malgas, a scientist at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, together with the farmers, monitored and assessed both wild and cultivated crops of rooibos. They found wild rooibos to be more heat and drought resistant. It grows more slowly and it can store up water reserves in its enlarged roots, enabling it to survive greater extremes of climate than its cultivated cousin.

Malgas questions how long cultivated rooibos can be grown in the area. "Climate forecasts for this region predict general warming and drying over the next five decades," she says. "Sustained high levels of production [of cultivated rooibos] during times of drought stress result in increased use of water at a time when water reserves are low."

The wild rooibos plants produce tea for up to 50 years, while cultivated crops last up to six years. The wild plants also thrive on the regular natural fires caused by summer lightning. The fires burn the top off the plant, helping it to grow faster, while the ash fertilises the nutrient-poor soil. Farmer Maans Fontuil says: "Here it is about survival. It is an extreme environment. Wild tea feels at home in poor-nutrient, sandy soil."

The Heiveld Co-operative now claims to be the world's first supplier of sustainably harvested wild rooibos, hoping to carve a niche in a market dominated by big commercial farms.

Back at the Heiveld tea court, several older farmers take a break from their work to talk about how they wish more South Africans would buy their tea.

Younger farmers, like 32-year-old Hugo Kotze, say that the small piece of land owned by the co-op's members is not big enough to produce enough tea to lift the families above the poverty line. The year's harvest netted the farmers just over $1,500 each.

He points to the white-owned sheep farms surrounding the tea court.

"This land is too small for us to plant further," he says. "We need more land if we are to continue with tea farming. I would be happy if the government could help us by buying up one of the farms for us but they are very slow."

Another downside for farmers is the wild plants cannot be grown from cuttings and are only harvested every second year.

Batting for the small farmers is a French tea buyer, Arlette Rohmer of Paris-based Les Jardins de Gaia. She has sold six tonnes of Heiveld tea to the French market every year for the past 11 years.

"These people are fighting to have a better life and I really fight to sell the small farmers' products. The big enterprises destroy both the soil and the small farming activities. We buyers really have to lead in showing the difference between the products of big organised businesses and the small farmers who care about biodiversity."

Andy Good, a tea buyer at fair-trade co-operative Equal Exchange UK, has been buying tea from Heiveld for the past six years. Breaking into an already saturated market won't be easy for the farmers, he says. "From a climate point of view it makes a lot of sense to plant wild rooibos. But in the UK, I think the market for wild rooibos will have to be built. There is immense oversupply in the industry: a few strong commercial companies who have good capital bases, and agents across the world who have contacts with supermarket buyers."

"The small farmer has to compete against that. It has been such a struggle just for Heiveld to be in existence against these big companies. It is a David and Goliath situation."

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