South Africa will spend R2-million this year on scientific research into the health properties of rooibos tea, and the findings are expected to further boost the production and export of this popular and versatile herb.
At one point in one of his acclaimed The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories, Alexander McCall Smith has one of the characters (the secretary) admitting that she does not like red bush tea. That, after she had been gulping the concoction for months, opting to suffer in silence rather than offend her employer.
So, the secret is out. Not everyone likes red bush tea. Not the world over, not in Botswana (where the Ladies agency is set), not even in the rooibos’ native South Africa.
Still, many more people do like the inimitable taste of rooibos tea, starting with the Smith’s irrepressible detective lady Mma Ramotswe.
It cannot be denied that Mma Romotswe’s seal of approval (“This tea is for people who really appreciate tea; ordinary tea is for anyone”, she says) is not a little deserving for the international popularity of rooibos.
The other reason can be sought in numerous reports showcasing the health benefits of this herbal infusion. In recent years, a growing body of scientific evidence is being added to the mountain of anecdotal testimonials.
Up to now, most of the research was based on in vitro work, in test tubes, and in vivo work, with live animals. The studies conducted on humans have been limited so far, but they seem to strongly substantiate the traditional belief that the tea contains components that can boost the body's natural defences. Last year, a team of scientists from the Stellenbosch University published a report identified two rare components of rooibos, aspalathin and nothofagin, that contribute to the stress-lowering effect. In 2012, South African researchers will conduct several projects, to the tune of R2-million, to examine the potential health benefits of rooibos, including its anti-ageing, anti-obesity and cancer-preventing properties. The independent projects are funded by the South African Rooibos Council.
The studies are expected to boost the production and export of rooibos tea. The rooibos bush, part of the famous fybos kingdom, grows naturally only in a small area in the region of the Western Cape, the Cederberg. Rooibos tea is one of South Africa’s best known products.
According to the Rooibos Council, South Africa produces approximately 12,000 tons of rooibos per year, about half of which is exported to more than 30 countries. Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the UK and the USA are the biggest importers.
The value of exported tea has increased by an average 26% year-on-year between 2005 and 2009. More than 90% of rooibos is exported in bulk, as loose tea, with little value added. While the tea remains the main focus of the industry, the Rooibos Council recognises that rooibos is a versatile product that presents many opportunities for value
adding. It is used in the manufacture of products such as skincare, pet care, alcoholic liqueurs, rooibos-smoked butter, salad dressings, yoghurt, jams, jellies and biscuits. A search for “rooibos” in the South African online marketplace bidorbuy.co.za is likely to reveal scores of different products ranging from teas to facial creams, salt scrubs, cream soaps, bath foams, body lotions, hair lotions, etc.
The rooibos industry is labour-intensive and provides about 4,500 jobs in the Cederberg and surrounding areas. It also forms a special part of the Cederberg's tourism attractions. Many producers and manufacturers offer rooibos farm tours, factory visits, tea tasting, rock climbing, rock art viewing, as well as a large variety of accommodation and other tourist facilities.