Zeekoevlei Rooibos Farm, Cederburg, South Africa

CEDERBURG, South Africa

For four months a year, the Cedarburg Mountains of South Africa’s Cape sustain temperatures of over one hundred degrees without a rain cloud in sight.  Yet it is in this remote stretch of land, 75 miles long by 40 miles wide, that rooibos thrives. 

In the heart of this region lies Zeekoevlei farm, which has recently become one of only four Rainforest Alliance certified rooibos plantations in the world.  The certification process began in 2010 and was awarded in 2011.

ImageThe farm covers 6,700 hectares of arid mountain landscape, where harvesting is done by hand with a shear in the hot summer months from January to April. The long stalks of rooibos are bundled into 18 Kg bundles and taken to the communal processing yard. Here, the leaves intended to become green rooibos are immediately sun dried, while those for traditional rooibos are cut and bruised to encourage oxidation with its characteristic red color.  Once dry the tea is sorted, blended and packed in the factory.

This method is extremely traditional but the farm sets itself apart with a unique business model.  The workers at Zeekoevlei act as an independent commercial cooperative separate from the land owner, Martin Bergh.  They rent the land, equipment and communal processing facilities that they need from Martin rather than working as contractors.  They are thus able to retain 100 percent of  the price for the rooibos that they harvest on which growers earn ZAR11-12 $1.50 per kg., the price before processing, shipping and distribution that almost doubles that cost. Since they do not need to live off the premium that certification has created the additional funds that remain after all the workers are paid, stay within the community, developing training programmes and establishing community schools and groups on the farm.  

The ultimate goal is that in a few generations, the workers will be able to buy the farm from Martin outright, though this is a long way off.  In the meantime, Martin says that “people who buy Rainforest Alliance Certified Rooibos will know that the farmers who produced these products are not exploiting their labourers, and that they taking good care of their land and follow sound business principles to ensure a sustainable future.”

ImageThe farm is as committed to modern production and quality control as it is to sustainable business.  ‘The packing and processing facilities are extremely technical and product testing is performed with great precision,” says Sarah Scarborough of Republic of Tea, the only U.S based buyer of RFA certified Green Rooibos from the farm.  “It is evident that the producers here have a real commitment to best quality and best practices,” she says.

2011 Harvest Report

The farm produced 30 tons of rooibos per day during the harvest season of January to April 2011 which is less than expected as rainfall reduced yield during this same period. Luckily weather so far this year looks set to allow re-growth to begin. The region gets very little rain, only 8-12 inches per year , but rooibos has long tap roots, descending 12 foot or so into the ground. According to Hugh Lamond, President of Herbal Teas International, the major importer of RFA Rooibos into the USA, this is not likely to result in any shortage of product in the market place.