#AfricaLeads: Rooibos is Africa’s first protected indigenous foodstuff

by Louise Burgers. Rooibos becomes Africa’s first indigenous foodstuff to be recognised by the EU.

by Louise Burgers. It’s been a hard fought victory for the Rooibos tea industry to protect South Africa’s home-grown Rooibos from exploitation and misuse, and in the latest win, Rooibos becomes Africa’s first indigenous foodstuff to be recognised and protected by the European Union.

Rooibos tea products from the Cederberg region in South Africa now qualify to carry the EU Protected Designation of Origin stamp. “This means that Rooibos is a product that only occurs in certain geographic area in the world, specifically the Cederberg; that it comes from a specific bush;  that there is traditional know how in harvesting it; and the quality parameters, are also registered. The consumer is now the winner. They see Rooibos tea with that EU stamp and they know what they are getting,” says Joe Swart, co-founder of the Laager Rooibos tea brand and a director on the Rooibos Council of South Africa.

It has been a costly journey for the Rooibos industry in South Africa to get to this point where the name ‘Rooibos’ as an ingredient and as ‘Rooibos Tea’, cannot be used or exploited elsewhere. In 2016, the industry received verbal recognition from the EU; and it has taken five years for the EU to include the protection in its regulations, including the EU stamp which South African producers can use, explains Swart. The journey for the industry began after the Rooibos trademark was hijacked in the United States and registered there. It cost upwards of R6 million to fight to get the name back.

Speaking to Retailing Africa, Swart says first Rooibos had to be registered properly in South Africa before they could take on the rest of the world. “Through the SA Rooibos Council (SARC) and working with Government, we now have legislation in South Africa that protects the Rooibos name in the country of origin. In 2013 we registered the name Rooibos, Rooibos Tea, Red Bush Tea, and so on, so that the name is protected under the Merchandise Marks Act in South Africa. It was the first step to start protecting the name Rooibos globally.”


That was only the start, as Rooibos had to be registered elsewhere in the world to fully protect it internationally. The brand Laager Rooibos for instance had already been registered in China as a tea by unknown entities, but it is not a Rooibos tea that you get. “We then also found out that there were attempts to grow Rooibos in Australia. Our next step is to get the Word Trade Organisation (WTO) to register Rooibos and then we are bulletproof,” says Swart.

Rooibos has been protected in the United States since 2005 after a long legal dispute was settled, said a statement from law firm Webber Wentzel on the matter: “In terms of the settlement, the two infringing companies agreed to cancel their Rooibos trademark registrations, which afforded them the exclusive right to Rooibos in the United States and other countries. The European Commission has now approved the registration of the designation Rooibos/Red Bush in its register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications. Rooibos/Red Bush joins Champagne, Irish whiskey, Porto, Queso Manchego, and other iconic products already registered. It is reported that food products listed on the EU’s register of protected designations of origins generate almost R1.24 trillion. Bilateral agreements between the EU and its international partners, including between the EU and China, recognise the protected designations of origin. The designation protects both consumers and manufacturers.”

The SA Rooibos Council’s Marthane Swart, told Retailing Africa that the original registration in 2016 was under the European Partnership Agreement (EPA), where the word “Rooibos” did not occur on the formal EU register. “This new registration means we are now on the register and have use of the logo,” she said. After the 2016 agreement, Rooibos enjoyed the same protection in Europe as any other GI product through the EPA, but since it was not yet listed on the EU GI Register, Rooibos producers were unable to use the EU’s GI stamp; and Rooibos would not be picked up by anybody who did a GI search on the EU database. In 2017, SARC started the application process for Rooibos to be included on the EU GI Register. This is what the newest EU regulations mean specifically:

  • Rooibos tea has been awarded the status of geographical indication (GI) in the European Union.
  • ‘Rooibos’, ‘Rooibos Tea’ and ’Red Bush’ tea has been listed by the European Commission in its register of both protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications.
  • Only tea labelled as Rooibos or “Red Bush” tea made using dried leaves of 100% pure ‘Rooibos’ derived from the Aspalathus Linearisplant that has been cultivated or wild-harvested in designated local municipalities in South Africa, primarily the Cederberg region, may use the EU stamp.

The history of Rooibos dates back centuries when it was first used by South Africa’s indigenous KhoiSan people as a medicinal herb when the leaves harvested from the Aspalathus Linearis bush  was 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, according to Laager Rooibos which was one of the first commercial Rooibos tea brands. Rooibos was long known as “the poor man’s tea” as only the rich could afford imported black tea in the days of the Cape colony. Research has also elevated the profile of Rooibos because of its health benefits.

Laager Rooibos’s Joe Swart is confident that this is just the start for indigenous foodstuffs in Africa, as the Rooibos decision paves the way for other traditional and indigenous ingredients in Africa to also seek protection. This could include South Africa’s Honeybush Tea and Karoo Lamb. The latest victory at the EU has already born fruit, with Swart saying their brand has subsequently received orders within international markets. “This is a real value proposition for the industry. That is why we are so excited. This is strategic and will pave the way for all small scale farmers around Africa to register their products. Rooibos also has massive potential in the world markets. The black tea market has been shrinking on average by 2% around the world for the last decade.” (With the exception of 2020 as people stayed home and presumably drank more tea).

Swart adds, “People are chasing convenience these days and don’t want to have to brew a pot of tea or even wait for water to boil. But we are trying to get people back to teatime traditions.” He agrees, that with the much-touted health benefits of Rooibos tea, it is well-positioned to grow globally with the focus more on health in the current pandemic. “We experienced a 30% growth in our Rooibos brand alone in 2020, due to people wanting healthier options. Research has definitely elevated the profile of Rooibos because of its health benefits. It is part of a healthy lifestyle.” Swart says that more research is being done into the health properties of Rooibos and there are pharmaceutical companies looking into the properties of Rooibos for various applications.


Main image credit: Photo by Yana on Unsplash.



Louise Burgers is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


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