How these Indigenous farmers finally got paid for their world-famous rooibos tea
High atop a remote plateau in South Africa's Cederberg Mountains, half a dozen Indigenous Khoisan men stride briskly along rows of thigh-high shrubs. Every few yards they pause and stoop down to harvest armfuls of wispy stems, each one covered with needle-like leaves. The crop is rooibos, a plant native to the region that has been used by generations of Khoisan both as a tea and for a range of medicinal purposes.
Today, the sweet, earthy infusion, which is rich in antioxidants and naturally caffeine-free, is a mainstay of trendy cafe menus from New York to Tokyo, its growing popularity fueled not only by its distinctive flavor but also by its supposed (but not proven) health benefits. South African exports have skyrocketed from barely 500 tons in 1996 to nearly 9,000 tons today. That's enough to fill 3.6 billion teabags. It's also increasingly being used as an ingredient in health foods and cosmetic products.
Until now, the Khoisan — a term that refers to both the Khoi and San peoples — have gained little from this global industry built on the back of their traditional knowledge. Now, after a slew of changes in the industry, culminating in the signing of a historic revenue-sharing agreement with the country's commercial farmers organization, Indigenous farming communities are seeing that slowly change.
"People used to think of rooibos as a poor man's drink," says Barend Salomo, 64, head of the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Co-operative and a veteran activist for the rights of Indigenous rooibos farmers. It was cheap and a drink embraced by the Khoi and the San communities. Wealthy South Africans drank pricier black tea imported from Asia. "But now everybody's mad for it," he says.
The farmers on the plateau work quickly, stopping only occasionally to rest and smoke cigarettes rolled in scraps of newspaper. Within the space of three hours, they've harvested nearly half a ton of rooibos (which means "red bush" in Afrikaans, although the bush itself isn't red, it's the tea that has that hue). They bundle it into sacks and load it onto a tractor that will carry it down a steep mountain track to the village of Wupperthal in the valley below. There the leaves will be cut up, fermented and dried by the co-operative's workers before being sent on for secondary processing and ultimately exported to buyers.
First commercialized at the start of the 20th century, the rooibos trade has since been dominated by the descendants of European settlers. Long ago dispossessed of their land, most Khoisan in the Cederberg region were effectively sidelined by colonial and later apartheid policies while the industry grew, their role largely restricted to harvesting wild rooibos in the mountains or providing cheap labor for white commercial farmers. Rachel Wynberg with the University of Cape Town has described the history of the industry as one of "dispossession and adversity."
"You can forgive but you can't forget when you think of the unfairness of the industry," said Anville Koopman, a local rooibos farmer. "We got paid peanuts and the commercial farmers got all the money."
Dawie De Villiers, legal director of the South African Rooibos Council, which represents commercial farmers and processors, acknowledged there had been injustices in the past.
"Horrible things happened during apartheid, but it wasn't only the rooibos industry," he said. "All branches of agriculture had the same issues. And as for the lack of compensation for the Khoisan, we've now addressed that with the benefit-sharing agreement. To our knowledge, it's the only one that's ever been realized on an industry-wide scale anywhere in the world."
In recent decades, challenges to South African rooibos growers and exporters have also emerged from overseas. Companies in the U.S. and later France attempted to trademark the name rooibos itself, which would have barred competitors from selling the tea under its own name. Then in 2010, the food and drink giant Nestlé found itself facing accusations of "bio-piracy" after filing several patent applications for cosmetic and health uses of rooibos without securing the necessary permission from either the South African government or the Khoisan.
A Nestlé spokesperson declined to comment on the incident but said, "Nestlé supports the principle of access and benefit sharing arising from the utilization of genetic resources. We have introduced a number of measures and work with our suppliers to ensure compliance with national laws, as well as relevant international agreements."
"That Nestle business made me so mad," says Salomo. "We were using rooibos for those things before they'd even heard of it. It's a part of our culture, a part of us."
On a drive through the mountains around Wupperthal, Salomo points out stands of wild rooibos scattered by the roadside. He and his eleven siblings were weaned on rooibos tea as babies, and some of his first memories are of being taught how to harvest the plant in the wild by his father. Like many Khoisan in the region, he possesses a wealth of inherited knowledge about local flora. The leaves of one plant are eaten to boost the immune system when suffering from flu, he says. Another can be used to reduce inflammation, while the root of another is said to alleviate stomach ache.
"People think when you're sick you just take pills," says Salomo. "But nature has its own ways of healing, too. Everything we know is what our parents and grandparents taught us."
Around the world, there has been a growing recognition in recent years of the need to compensate Indigenous peoples for the commercialization of their "genetic resources" — defined as genetic material of actual or potential value. This was enshrined in the Nagoya Protocol, a 2010 agreement under the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity, to which South Africa is a signatory.
But it was the Nestle incident that ultimately sparked the decade-long process of re-establishing the place of South Africa's Indigenous people in both the history and the present day of the rooibos industry. With the help of Natural Justice, a legal nonprofit specializing in the rights of Indigenous groups, Khoisan leaders began a series of negotiations with the South African Rooibos Council, a trade body representing the country's commercial growers and processors.
An agreement was finally reached in 2019 after a government report backed up the Khoisan's claims to be the so-called "traditional knowledge holders" of the plant. Under its terms, the industry formally acknowledged the Khoisan's contribution to the industry and agreed to pay them an annual fee of 1.5% of the value of the total unprocessed rooibos production.
"It was about recognition," said Amelia Heyns, a lawyer with Natural Justice, who hopes that the deal may create a precedent for further agreements over other commodities, both in South Africa and elsewhere. "It was about righting some of the wrongs of the past."
Salomo was part of the negotiation team, and says he'll always remember that day. "It was like a part of our dignity was being restored. I can't describe the emotions that went through me."
For South Africa's Khoisan, the deal represents a substantial amount of money. In 2022, the first payment – some 12.2 million Rand ($642,000) — was finally transferred into a government trust and then distributed to two organizations representing the Khoi and the San respectively. Those organizations are now setting up systems to make the funds available for community initiatives. In the meantime, the agreement is already being reviewed, with Khoisan farmers hopeful that the value of the payment may be increased for future years.
While that process continues, the small-scale rooibos farmers of Salomo's cooperative in Wupperthal are already benefitting from high prices, boosted by fair-trade, organic and bio-dynamic farming certifications acquired in the past few years. Their product received a further boost when in 2021 the European Union granted rooibos "Protection of Designation of Origin" status, meaning that, as in the case of Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the term rooibos can now only be used for plants grown in this specific part of South Africa.
"It's our plant, and it makes me feel good that the whole world is enjoying it now," says 89-year-old Oom Kosie Salomo (no relation to Barend), who started selling wild-harvested rooibos to missionaries while still a child. Since then, a lifetime of hard work cultivating rooibos has brought him few material gains, but he hopes that things will be better for future generations.
"I'm excited about how my great-grandchildren will benefit," he says, sipping on a cup of rooibos in his living room in the tiny village of Langkloof, which sits at the base of a towering sandstone escarpment a 40-minute drive from Wupperthal. "I'm excited about the education they'll be able to get and the possibilities they'll have."
In some of the area's farming villages, the impacts of rooibos money are starting to show. Farmers who could not afford to move out of their parent's houses have been able to build themselves new homes. Anville Koopman, the farmer who complained of the historical injustice of the industry, has been able to send his daughter to college in Cape Town, where she now hopes to become a doctor. And with its growing profits, the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Co-operative has been able to fund a series of scholarships for local farmers' children.
But challenges remain. One is the impact of ever more erratic weather patterns. Increasingly violent storms are damaging infrastructure and interfering with harvests in the autumn, and some farmers say unpredictable rainfall patterns are impacting their yields.
Another contentious issue is the Khoisan's lack of access to the land. In a 2017 paper, Wynberg, the University of Cape Town researcher, notes that Black and mixed-race farmers still control just 7% of land under rooibos cultivation. All of the 77 farmers of the Wupperthal Original Rooibos Co-operative rent their plots from the Moravian church, which owns the village itself and some 36,000 hectares of the surrounding land.
"All this land, as far as you can see, still belongs to the church," says Barend Salomo, gesturing toward the mountains around Wupperthal, whose caves and cliffs are adorned with some 2,500 pieces of rock art painted by his ancestors. "There's still a long way to go for the Khoisan. But already things are a lot better than they were 10 years ago."
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