To ease your site search, article categories are at bottom of page.

February 06, 2012

Could drought threaten South Africa's rooibos tea?

by Pumza Fihlani

The world has developed a taste for South Africa's rooibos tea in recent years, mainly because of its perceived health benefits.

Annual exports have quadrupled since 1999 to 8,000 tonnes, proving a rare lifeline for residents of the harsh Suid Bokkeveld region where it grows. But the tea only grows in this small area and erratic weather patterns - blamed by some on climate change - mean the plant and the new industry are now under threat.

Small-scale farmer Jan Fryer, 53, has been growing rooibos on a communal farm for the past seven years. Despite growing tea for more than 20 years, Mr Fryer says the new climate rhythm has made him something of a novice in the field.

"The temperatures are definitely getting hotter and because of this is it more difficult for the rooibos plant to grow," he says. "The soil becomes too hot and the root of the plant burns and dies making the seedlings wilt and die before they even get a chance to become proper plants. We've had to change how we plant because of this."

The Suid Bokkeveld has always been a tough place to live – temperatures drop to 0C during winter and rise to a scorching 48C in the height of summer. But farmers say rooibos has become increasingly difficult to work with in recent years. As a result the planting season has changed from June-July to November, says Mr Fryer.

The industry is labour-intensive and provides about 4,500 jobs with a lot of work done by hand mainly by non- or semi-skilled workers.

The main foreign markets for the herbal tea are the UK, Germany, Netherlands, the US and Japan, according to the Department of Agriculture.

In 2000, about 4,500 tonnes of the leaves were sold abroad, more than twice the amount for 1999 and exports have now doubled again.

Rooibos is particularly vulnerable to changes in the weather as it only grows in about 20,000km sq of the Suid Bokkeveld due to the region's biodiversity. The herbal plant needs specific bacteria and fungi to be present in the soil as well as certain bees and wasps which are only found here.

There are two types of the plant - cultivated rooibos and wild rooibos. Wild rooibos has flourished in the region for many centuries and only recently became a commercial product. With a stronger taste, this more exotic tea fetches a higher price on the local and international markets.

But in 2003 the area was hit by a severe drought, which lasted for three years. More than half the cultivated rooibos was destroyed; it was the wild plants which helped sustain the industry.

"During the drought it became important for us to teach farmers to shift their focus from farming cultivated rooibos to wild rooibos, which proved more resilient to drought and changing conditions," says Noel Oettle of Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG).

Farmers have also moved from planting rooibos seedlings to planting seeds directly into the soil. While they take longer to germinate, seeds are more resilient and stand a better chance of yielding any kind of harvest, experts have told farmers here.

Today environmentalists warn that a similar drought is on the cards in the next few years. They say the future of this herbal brew is squarely in the hands of the farmers.


Article Categories

AGRA agribusiness agrochemicals agroforestry aid Algeria aloe vera Angola aquaculture banana barley beans beef bees Benin biodiesel biodiversity biof biofuel biosafety biotechnology Botswana Brazil Burkina Faso Burundi CAADP Cameroon capacity building cashew cassava cattle Central African Republic cereals certification CGIAR Chad China CIMMYT climate change cocoa coffee COMESA commercial farming Congo Republic conservation agriculture cotton cow pea dairy desertification development disease diversification DRCongo drought ECOWAS Egypt Equatorial Guinea Ethiopia EU EUREPGAP events/meetings expo exports fa fair trade FAO fertilizer finance fisheries floods flowers food security fruit Gabon Gambia gender issues Ghana GM crops grain green revolution groundnuts Guinea Bissau Guinea Conakry HIV/AIDS honey hoodia horticulture hydroponics ICIPE ICRAF ICRISAT IFAD IITA imports India infrastructure innovation inputs investment irrigation Ivory Coast jatropha kenaf keny Kenya khat land deals land management land reform Lesotho Liberia Libya livestock macadamia Madagascar maiz maize Malawi Mali mango marijuana markets Mauritania Mauritius mechanization millet Morocco Mozambique mushroom Namibia NEPAD Niger Nigeria organic agriculture palm oil pastoralism pea pest control pesticides pineapple plantain policy issues potato poultry processing productivity Project pyrethrum rai rain reforestation research rice rivers rubber Rwanda SADC Sao Tome and Principe seed seeds Senegal sesame Seychelles shea butter Sierra Leone sisal soil erosion soil fertility Somalia sorghum South Africa South Sudan Southern Africa spices standards subsidies Sudan sugar sugar cane sustainable farming Swaziland sweet potato Tanzania tariffs tea tef tobacco Togo tomato trade training Tunisia Uganda UNCTAD urban farming value addition value-addition vanilla vegetables water management weeds West Africa wheat World Bank WTO yam Zambia Zanzibar zero tillage Zimbabwe

  © 2007 Africa News Network design by

Back to TOP