South Africa’s beloved Rooibos tea is now in the same league as Champagne, Feta, and Irish Whiskey

A rooibos farmer holding a bundle of unprocessed rooibos
A rooibos farmer holding a bundle of unprocessed rooibos
Image: AP Photo/Obed Zilwa
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South Africa’s Rooibos tea has become the first food in Africa to receive approval for registration under the status of international protection from the European Union. This now places Rooibos in the same league as Champagne, Feta, Irish Whiskey, and Porto, among other products already existing in the register.

By this inclusion and recognition in the EU’s geographical indication register, Rooibos can now use the “protected designation of origin” (PDO) logo. This signifies the product quality, reputation or other unique characteristics that are directly linked to that particular geographical area. It also means that Rooibos or “Red Bush” in Afrikaans, can only be used to refer as such if it is made with dried leaves of 100% pure “Rooibos”/ “Red Bush” and blends derived from Aspalathus linearis, that has been cultivated or wild-harvested in designated provinces of the Western and Northern Cape.

Marthane Swart, of the South African Rooibos Council—a representative of the entire industry—said that the recognition is a boost to the product’s image not only in the country, but also in Africa and around the world.

“What this means is that our members [people who buy rooibos from the farmers and people who brand rooibos] are the only approved and recognized companies to use the name “Rooibos.” No other companies have the authority or approval to use the same name,” she said. “So, people cannot illegally register the same name anymore because we have some form of strong protection now from the EU.”

Road to EU certification

The process for the certification started in 2017. Rooibos was included in a partnership agreement between the EU and South Africa in 2016, but the tea was not allowed to use the PDO logo and the product was not included in the EU register as the certification process was still ongoing.

In the past, the South African Rooibos council has been involved in legal battles over the illegal use of the product’s name in other countries. This included stopping a French company in 2013 from trademarking the name. But with the recognition, Swart says this will solve these issues.

“In our application to the EU, we indicated that Rooibos grows in Cederberg [a mountain region north of Cape Town.] If for example you go and grow rooibos in Thailand, you can call it by another name, but not Rooibos tea, because it does not come from the area approved by the EU,” she said.

Swart told Quartz that the use of the EU PDO logo on the tea indicates quality, reliability, and originality to consumers of the product. According to a study by the European Commission, food and drinks with geographical designations generated € 77.1 ($91.7 billion) in 2017.

EU certification also results in premium pricing for products. According to Swart, “The European market tends to favor any product with such recognition and you can normally earn a higher price for the product,” she says. “We don’t know how it will happen for Rooibos, but we are certainly hopeful that it will happen.”

Rooibos production and the way forward

According to the Rooibos Council, an average of 14,000 tons of the product are produced each year with demand and consumption soaring over the past years.

In the past there have been fluctuations in production volumes of Rooibos, given it is a medium-term crop which grows for four or five years, with farmers then switching to another crop. With the designation and potential price increases, it’s very likely that farmers will plant the crop regularly, resulting in increased volume and demand.

Rooibos tea is rich in antioxidants which are important for a healthy heart and helps keep cholesterol levels in check. In addition, the tea is caffeine-free and well-positioned to capitalize on a rising interest in decaffeinated hot beverages. The product is currently exported to more than 30 countries globally.  Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and US topping the list as biggest importers of the tea.

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