A story told in tea leaves: 75-years of SA teatime rooted in history

Jonathan Kelsey and Joe Swart, directors of Joekels Tea Packers, manufacturers of Laager Rooibos, spoke to Retailing Africa on the occasion of the brand’s 75th anniversary.

The second biggest Rooibos brand worldwide, Laager Rooibos, celebrates 75 years of history – from its launch in 1945 at the end of the Second World War; through to life under global lockdown today. The brand, which now includes the Laager Rooibos Herbal and Laager Tea4Kidz product ranges, has lived through some of the last century’s most interesting times. The history of Rooibos dates back possibly thousands of years when this tea was first used by South Africa’s KhoiSan people as a medicinal herb – the leaves harvested from the Aspalathus Linearis plant were used to make natural remedies for a variety of ailments.

Grown exclusively on the Cederberg Mountains of the Western Cape, Rooibos was produced commercially for the first time in the 1930s, making Laager Rooibos one of the first commercial Rooibos tea brands in existence. The brand heroes its origins among the Rooibos fields and Cederberg Mountains which form the iconic backdrop to the Laager Rooibos box. Many countries have tried, and failed, to grow Rooibos, with the Cederberg region the only place where this natural herb thrives. Although the processing of Rooibos has been refined and mechanised over the years, it is not that far removed from how it was traditionally harvested and processed. Bunches of leaves were rolled into hessian bags and transported down the mountain by donkeys, at which point the leaves and stems were chopped and then bruised with mallets before being left to ferment, and later spread out and dried under the hot African sun. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand has provided online educational support for parents and caregivers, as well as donating goods where needed. It carries the Heart & Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) stamp of approval; and through the Joekels Communitea Foundation, the brand is supporting heart health, children’s organisations, non-profit organisations and local businesses.

Jonathan Kelsey (left) and Joe Swart, directors of Joekels Tea Packers, manufacturers of Laager Rooibos.

Over the years, the many health benefits of Rooibos have been uncovered in extensive research funded by The South African Rooibos Council. These health benefits are now widely acknowledged and have contributed significantly to the growing popularity of Rooibos, not only in South Africa but across the globe. Fun fact: master tea blender, Jonathan Kelsey, co-founder of Joekels Tea Packers, manufacturers of Laager Rooibos, insured his tongue and taste buds for R5 million. Retailing Africa interviewed Kelsey, and his business partner and Joekels co-founder and co-director, Joe Swart, about the brand’s journey:

RA: What does this milestone anniversary of the brand mean to you?

JK & JS: It’s a huge success and source of pride for us. Since taking on the brand, we have focused on doing the basics right and the brand has flourished; it has tripled in size and has a massive following in South Africa and a strong heritage. To be a brand that has been part of South African homes and contributed positively to our consumers’ lives for 75 years is a massive milestone.

What makes rooibos such a global phenomenon?

Local consumption contributes around 45% of total Rooibos volumes. Rooibos is special for a number of reasons. It is a uniquely South African beverage – grown only in one region throughout the world, the Cederberg mountains of the Western Cape. It is a huge part of the history of that region and also contributes significantly to the economy of the region and the South African local and export economy as a whole. Rooibos also offers a vast and unique range of health benefits – it is naturally caffeine-free, low in tannins, naturally sweet (so adding sugar/honey is not necessary unless a sweeter taste is preferred), it is high in antioxidants and is the only known source of a potent antioxidant aspalathin, which could play a role in combating several lifestyle diseases. A lot of research has also been done into the cancer-fighting properties of Rooibos and the heart health benefits. Laager Rooibos is the only branded Rooibos in South Africa that carries the Heart & Stroke Foundation SA heart mark, which is something we’re very proud of.

What market share does Laager Rooibos hold; and what are the brand values that put you there?

Laager has roughly a 20% share of the market, up from 16% last year. Laager Rooibos has always focused on offering premium quality Pure Rooibos and is known for its strong flavour – that’s why we’ve always maintained that “Strength is our Tradition”. We also celebrate heritage and family, having been part of South African families for generations. This really resonates with our consumers because tea is a beverage that is often passed down through the generations, and a rich source of memories and traditions.

How has the brand innovated over the years?

Laager was the first Rooibos brand to launch a kid’s tea, with the Tea4Kidz range, in 2000. The vision with this was to introduce consumers to Rooibos at a young age and bring in a new generation of users by offering them a nutritious product with flavours and animal characters on pack that appeal to kids. We’ve again been at the forefront of kids tea innovation by recently launching two variants that have added Vitamin C – also a first for the segment. We see Tea4Kidz as a steppingstone into the Laager Mother Brand. We have also innovated by adding flavoured Rooibos and Green Rooibos to the range which has been positive for the brand – the Laager Green Rooibos with Citrus & Ginger has been an absolute winner during the pandemic, with people looking for products that will boost their immune systems.

What has been the impact of Covid on your brand?

With people being at home more with family, some tea traditions have made a comeback – consumers are drinking more rooibos, green tea and black tea, also due to the known health benefits of tea; and the fact that tea is one of the most affordable beverages in the world. Our Joekels employees have been working hard to supply the extra demand and we are happy to say that we have pulled through quite nicely.

Have you seen changes in consumer behaviour under the pandemic?

Consumers are definitely more aware of taking a proactive approach to their health and are investing in products that are seen to offer health benefits (particularly in relation to boosting immunity). Consumers are also getting back to basics in terms of spending time with family and taking pleasure in the simple things of life again. Both of these factors have definitely contributed to the growth of tea over this time.

How will the brand continue to evolve in the future?

The brand continues to evolve not only through product development and innovation, but also through partnerships and consumer engagement. The words to a classic song come to mind: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

How is the brand marking this milestone anniversary?

We are celebrating 75 years with a PR, social media, and taxi TV and Radio campaign featuring our brand ambassadors (Lebo and Tebo Ndala from With Love from the Twins). We have a new catchy brand jingle which also pays tribute to the brand’s heritage; and have also been selling our 160s pack at a special birthday price of R75 in some channels. We planned to host Laager birthday parties, but unfortunately these had to be postponed due to Covid.

What would you say is your brand philosophy?

The importance of heritage and family traditions is our key philosophy – being there through the ages at all times; and creating traditions that are passed down from generation to generation.

Please elaborate on the strategies you have put in place to navigate this pandemic.

We are putting more focus on driving education around the health benefits of tea, with our key message on Laager being “Your daily cup of strength”. We are also aiming to drive consistent distribution and product availability; despite the challenges we are facing with the pandemic. We have not taken any price increases on Rooibos, to ensure that it remains accessible and affordable for all South Africans.


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