A Rooibos plantation in the Western Cape (Pic supplied: Meropa Communications)

JOHANNESBURG - Rooibos, which is exclusively farmed in the Cederberg and Sandveld areas of the Western Cape, is fast becoming one of the most attractive agricultural products to invest in, the South African Rooibos Council (SARC) said on Monday.

The SARC said that South Africa holds a competitive advantage in a number of fruit and beverage sectors, including Rooibos, which if fully exploited, could place the country amid the top export producers of high-value agricultural products.

About half, or rather 6,000 and 7,000 tonnes of Rooibos is consumed locally, while the balance is exported to more than 30 countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK and US.

Nicie Vorster, spokesperson for the SARC, said the world was increasingly counting on agriculture to produce more nutritious food, and Rooibos fitted the mould.

“Major Rooibos markets view the tea as a premium healthy lifestyle product and promote it in its pure and unblended form, which health-conscious consumers want more of. The increased emphasis on health and well-being globally is fuelling a revival and preference for experiences and products that promote wellness," Vorster said. 

"It’s not only Rooibos’ health benefits that makes it highly sought-after, but also its versatility. Apart from enjoying it as a hot or cold beverage – whether plain or flavoured, Rooibos is used in multiple other applications, ranging from beauty products and nutraceuticals to alcoholic drinks, confectionary and everyday foodstuffs, such as yoghurt and cereal. Every year, we are seeing new and exciting innovations in the Rooibos category as entrepreneurs and branders experiment with the product."

Vorster said the current area planted under Rooibos is at a record high of 57,000 hectares – almost double that of a decade ago as more farmers, especially those in the Swartland region, have cleared existing farmland to make way for Rooibos. He said the increasing agricultural footprint of Rooibos demonstrated the growing demand – both locally and internationally – for the homegrown brew. 

The sector is also attracting more growers, Vorster said, especially grain farmers who are looking to diversify, since Rooibos is a hardy, dry land crop which is generally less affected by drought when compared to other rain dependent crops.

Vorster said Rooibos farmers took various steps to proactively manage supply in the face of the severe drought that plagued the Western Cape over the past few years, by implementing more sustainable farming practices, removing water-thirsty alien invasive plants in the vicinity of fields and limiting pest and disease outbreaks.

"Even though Rooibos farmers are accustomed to periods of drought, since the region is considered a semi-desert, harvests are not immune to the effects of climate change. Yet, based purely on the average rainfall for the past year, we should see an improvement in crop size in 2019," Vorster said.

The Rooibos industry currently employs an estimated 8,000 farmworkers and additional employment is created in upstream activities, such as processing, packaging and retailing.

- African News Agency (ANA)