Rooibos hits the big time

by | Oct 29, 2018 | Lifestyle, Business and Marketing

Whether it’s your favourite hot drink, mixed in a cocktail or used to make moisturiser or even the latest designer purse, rooibos is as South African as biltong, braaivleis and koeksisters. Now this young, vibrant industry is taking the world by storm, one wine glass, latTE and comic book at a time.

Since rooibos, a legume-related crop indigenous to the Cederberg region, was first traded in the early 1900s, the South African rooibos industry has grown exponentially. Today ongoing investment in new plantings is required as rooibos’ local and overseas footprint expands.

How it all started?

In 1904 Russian immigrant Benjamin Ginsberg recognised the potential of this unique “mountain tea” and became the first rooibos exporter when he started trading with it. However it was only after physician and botanist Dr Le Fras Nortier found a way to germinate the seeds in the 1930s that rooibos was produced on a commercial scale.

The collapse of the rooibos market after World War Two led to the establishment of the Clanwilliam Tea Cooperative in 1948. At the request of the cooperative, the minister of agriculture appointed the Rooibos Tea Board in 1954 to regulate marketing, stabilise prices, and improve and standardise quality. The board was privatised in 1993 and renamed Rooibos Ltd. The SA Rooibos Council is an independent organisation that responsibly promotes rooibos and its attributes, and protects the interests of both consumers and stakeholders through research and communication.

Consistency pays off

“Rooibos Ltd was the first player in the market at a time when the product was virtually unknown internationally,” Rooibos Ltd client liaison Marijke Ehlers says. “When the rooibos export market was established in the ’80s and ’90s we launched an intensive awareness campaign to educate potential buyers about its benefits.”

This campaign spanned many years and involved both business-to-business marketing and introducing consumers to the product to drive demand from the end users. This strategy paid off as Rooibos Ltd currently processes and supplies 70% of the country’s rooibos in bulk to local and international clients.

“We continue to focus our efforts on both ends of the spectrum, building confidence with our clients being the packers and branders, and creating demand among consumers through the generic marketing of rooibos to the public,” Marijke says.

So what’s the sales pitch?

Rooibos has some rare selling points. It’s a natural product with several health benefits. It’s also pleasant on the palate and seen as unique and exclusive as it grows in only a small area in the Western Cape and nowhere elseon Earth. Its versatility is a big plus as it can be used in foodstuffs, cosmetics and supplements.

“Rooibos makes up a tiny percentage of the global tea market, and while growing awareness in general is an important part of our marketing efforts, innovation in terms of product development and the correct positioning in the market are of paramount importance to enforce its uniqueness in contrast to the sheer volume of the total tea market,” Marijke says.

While the SA Rooibos Council predominantly focuses its research on health-related issues, Rooibos Ltd proactively does in-house product development and innovation, providing its bulk buyers with examples or working with clients to develop tailor-made solutions.

It makes business sense

The rooibos industry doesn’t benchmark production costs and profitability, but the upward trend in pricing and expansion of operations indicate that it’s a lucrative industry to be in right now.

“We’re seeing new entrants to the industry and existing producers are expanding their operations,” Marijke says. “At present, partly due to the drought and partly due to growing demand, there’s a shortage of rooibos which has resulted in substantial increases in the unit price of rooibos products across the board, making it an attractive option for producers.”

The SA Rooibos Council believes that adopting a biodiversity conservation approach to rooibos production can result in even lower input costs and increased profitability, while at the same time protecting the natural resources in the ecologically sensitive Cederberg region.

Although rooibos is a dryland crop largely dependent on the weather, it doesn’t degrade when stored. This means reserve stock can be built during higher production years, mitigating risk and ensuring continuity in supply during dry years.

Demand is growing

There’s an increasing demand for rooibos both locally and overseas. Germany, the Netherlands and Japan currently make up two thirds of the total South African rooibos export market. This is largely due to an increasing demand from consumers to be informed about the products they consume, and that includes their origin, processing techniques and benefits, Marijke says. “Consumers are more connected to the rest of the world than ever before thanks to the internet and social media. Leveraging this by providing more direct, immediate and intimate insight into the background of your product, you create a personal connection with the end user.”

The fastest-growing category in tea globally is speciality teas, which includes herbal teas and blends, flavoured teas, and medicinal and functional teas. Rooibos is a prime example of this category. Thanks to its mild taste, it blends well with a wide variety of other flavours, be they spicy, sweet, fruity or creamy, and does well on its own or as part of a herbal blend.

In South Africa, where many people grew up with traditional rooibos, the demand has also shown strong growth over the past decade. According to a recent SA Rooibos Council survey, South African consumers have expanded their consumption of this naturally sweet drink from a mere breakfast beverage to enjoying it at least three times a day.

More than just a cuppa

In 1968 Annetjie Theron, a South African mother struggling with an allergy-prone infant, claimed rooibos soothed her baby’s colic. She published a book on her findings and went on to launch what is now the renowned rooibos-based range of Annique health and skin-care products.

Although South Africans are familiar with a red (rooibos) espresso, it was breaking news in May when international coffee chain Starbucks’ UK branch introduced a rooibos latte and red apple rooibos latte.

Zimbabwean-born Grace Dube made headlines in March when an exclusive range of purses made from dried rooibos teabags caught the eye of an international fashion designer. The purses are now sold at the Ithemba Design Ethik boutique in Paris, France.

Rooibos even made it onto media and entertainment giant Marvel Comics’ radar. In a recent edition of the comic She-Hulk, psychiatrist Flo Mayer offers the main character, Jennifer Walters, a cup of rooibos to calm her down.

A vast array of rooibos-related products are showcased at the annual Rooibos Experience. Consumers can sample anything from wines created with rooibos wood and tannins, rooibos-blended lagers, buchu- and rooibos-infused gin and distilled rooibos spirits to smoothies, iced teas, fruit and vegetables rehydrated in rooibos and rooibos-flavoured cured meats.

A range of beauty products and detox blends are also on display.


The rooibos industry’s annual earnings are close on R500 million. It has 300 commercial producers, 210 small-scale farmers and 11 processors. Rooibos provides income and employment to about 8 000 farm labourers. Further employment is created in upstream activities such as processing, packaging and retailing.

Rooibos is a dryland crop and over the past 10 years production has varied from 10000 – 18 000 tons, depending on rainfall. South Africans consume just a little less than half the total rooibos production and the rest is exported to more than 30 countries across the globe. Germany, The Netherlands, Japan, the UK and USA are the biggest importers of rooibos. Rooibos sales in 2016 equalled six billion cups or close on one cup a person globally.

Source: SA Rooibos Council

* The South African Rooibos Council is an independent organisation, responsibly promoting rooibos and its attributes to the consumer and protecting the interests of the rooibos consumer and SARC stakeholders, supported by effected research and communication. Its members include Annique Health & Beauty, Cape Rooibos, Cape Natural Tea Products, National Brands Limited, Joekels Tea Packers, Rooibos Ltd, The Red T Company, Unilever SA and Skimmelberg.

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