By Nevin, Tom
African Business , No. 397
THE PLANTS RESEMBLE AN army of big green porcupines lining up for an attack, spines abristle and fiercely upright. In fact, they're rooibos bushes and you will find them only if you venture into the Cederberg Mountains near the Western Cape hinterland town of Clanwilliam, some 250km north of Cape Town. They are becoming internationally famous for making a fragrant and refreshing tea, a wide range of health aids, and cosmetics. As the bush matures and the spines are harvested, they take on a reddish hue, thus the name rooibos (red bush). Today, the plant's popularity as a tea is being more than matched by its health boosting applications of medicine chest proportion, while rooibos cosmetics are adding to the global buzz. However, South Africans in the rooibos business could lose out commercially and financially on a massive scale because they lack the legal armour to protect their intellectual property and are outgunned financially by overseas marketers intent on cashing in on the rooibos name.
The rooibos community is still bruised by a rough-house encounter with an American company that had registered and was using the name. That has been settled amicably, but new marauders are on the horizon.
Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg named the plant in an expedition to the area in 1772 and nearly 140 years later it was 'rediscovered' by Russian immigrant Benjamin Ginsberg.
Already in the tea business, Ginsberg recognised the tea's potential and marketed it locally and in Europe as 'Mountain Tea'. It was favoured by the discerning European palate for its subtle flavours. The discovery of health benefits followed. It was found to be free of caffeine, low in tannin and rich in anti-oxidants. In the last 80 years or so its reputation as an aid to health has grown with many new applications. More recently rooibos-based cosmetics have joined the range of products. The craggy Cederberg is the only place on earth where rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) grows naturally. As a cash crop, the plant is cultivated commercially in farm fields and harvested where it grows wild in rocky meadows and on the roadsides. Inhabitants in and around the Cederberg make a living by cutting the free range stalks and selling them to the processing factories.
Generations of mainly Afrikaans farming folk in the area have used the plant in various ways--as a refreshment and in a wide range of medicinal purposes--and it was inevitable that its usage and reputation should grow globally. In recent months interest in the rooibos has accelerated in health research circles as a potential medical breakthrough in the treatment of diabetes that could turn out to be life-changing for millions of sufferers of the condition worldwide.
"Rooibos has been found to be rich in aspalathin and rutin," says Dr Johan Louw, a scientist at the South African Medical Research Council. "and when the two compounds are combined the results are remarkable." (See box 'How rooibos tea holds out hope for diabetics')
South African growers, harvesters, marketers and distributors will have to step carefully, however, because the rooibos name, gaining homeopathic acceptability worldwide, is largely unprotected as an intellectual property. Even though the plant grows exclusively in South Africa, particularly in the Clan-william region, over a relatively small area, growers and harvesters are under constant threat of the name as a local intellectual property being usurped and registered in a foreign country. This is precisely what's happening in the case of a French company applying to register a number of trademarks incorporating the terms "South African Rooibos", and "Rooibos" last year. …