Rooibos: Helping farmers with certification

The biggest buyer of Rooibos tea made a plan to cooperate with tea farmers and certification authorities.

Two things that really bother farmers are the administrative burden and costs associated with certification for quality standards, said Mr Martin Bergh, Managing Director of Rooibos Ltd, addressing an audience at a farmers’ event at Gifberg near Vanrhynsdorp. Yet, farmers will have to learn to comply with these standards if they want to sell their products in the long term. “It’s here to stay. As we get used to this, we will find that this is not a bad thing.”

At present, organic certification or certification for sustainable farming is done at processor level. However, it needs to go back to farm level. According to Bergh, they are getting very close to the point where SAGap (a legal requirement setting out to ensure food safety across the entire export chain) will no longer only apply to food that is being exported. “This is going to change. Consumers simply want to know where their food comes from and whether this food is safe and reliable. The only way to do this is through certification.”

Bergh says Rooibos Ltd is working on certification for food safety systems (FSSC). “It won’t be long before those tea packers that already have FSSC certification tell us that they won’t buy from us if we do not have it. We need to make a plan to incorporate this in our daily work and to prevent this from becoming a pain.” He acknowledged the administrative burden and costs associated with certification, which is why Rooibos Ltd wants to establish a full-fledged certification department. “This department will be run by a certification officer that will handle each supplier’s documentation. The administrative burden for farmers will be to complete these forms. However, they will be assisted and audited beforehand.”

For smaller farmers, SAGap has become totally unaffordable. Hence, Rooibos Ltd will negotiate with PPECB (board on export of perishable products) to obtain collective certification to recover the biggest part of the costs from the company by implementing a uniform system. Bergh says that this will take time, but by 2015, they want all Rooibos farmers supplying them with tea to be certified “on a uniform system that will cost very little”.

At the farmers’ event, Mr Shubesco Heilbron, head of PPECB’s programme for food safety, said that recent incidents in the citrus export industry emphasised the importance of food safety in terms of access to markets.

R2,1 billion market
The retail value of the entire tea market amounts to R2,1 billion. What’s more, it increased with 8,7%, said Mr Joe Swart, co-owner of Joekels Tea Packers, at the event. Black tea represents 67% of the market while Rooibos tea represents 27%, with fruit and herbal teas making up the rest. Joekels owns, among others, the Laager brand which is the second biggest Rooibos tea brand in South Africa and which has a market share of some 19%. Freshpak has the biggest market share with 45%. Swart said the growing local market is still the bread and butter of the Rooibos industry. “In 2001, the local market for Rooibos tea amounted to 3 500 tons. It is now almost 8 000 tons.” Almost 60% of all teas are sold in Gauteng. According to Swart, tea is still relatively inexpensive and it performs well even in tough economic conditions. However, he believes that Rooibos tea sales have come to a point where the price will have to be managed carefully so as not to lose market share to black tea, which still costs less.

Healthy seedlings
The Rooibos industry is one of the few industries hosting a large-scale farmers’ event every second year where every aspect – from seeds to a cup of tea – is discussed in such detail. A team of scientists looked at production practices as the production of Rooibos depends on healthy seedlings.

The industry, in cooperation with Dr Sandra Lamprecht, plant pathologist from the LNR’s institute for research on plant protection, developed a programme to motivate seedling growers to provide the industry with healthy seedlings. Presenting the Seedling Grower of the Year Award to Mr Robert Bergh from Zeekoevlei, Clanwilliam, she said that a top seedling grower must have passion and commitment, and work every single day.