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Rooibos farmers: Empowerment isn’t our cup of tea

Author: Sipho Kings

A fifth of the country’s rooibos comes from the Nieuwoudtville district. The farm was founded in the mid-1800s when a Dutch settler married a local woman and they started growing sorghum. This is in the area known as the Namaqualand and is famous for the flowers that carpet the veld in spring. Nieuwoudtville has one main tar street. A sign proclaims this to be the “Bulb Capital of the World”. There is a thin layer of grey sand over the sedimentary rock, and only fynbos and some aloes can survive in this semi-desert. 

The 20 residents survive by picking organic rooibos and selling it to a co-operative called Heiveld, which they helped to found. About 200 tonnes a year are exported to Europe, mainly Germany, earning R4-million last year. 

The farmers set up the co-operative in 2001, and the R4-million is shared between 73 farmers who must pay staff and production costs, and ensure their harvest reaches the Cape Town harbour.

The farmers are also able to charge a premium for their organic tea, but in 2008, the provincial agricultural department, in an “empowerment scheme” for “previously disadvantaged farmers”, built a rooibos production and packaging plant in Nieuwoudtville. 

The tea packed in the department’s Nieuwoudtville Rooibos factory is not organic, and now the farmers say they are being forced to sell their crop to the factory and not to their co-operative.

If they don’t give at least 70% of their crop to the factory, the farmers say their tractor, tools and diesel, donated to them by the provincial department, will be taken away.

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