The Suid Bokkeveld has a harsh climate, baking in the summer but with frequent winter frosts and droughts. Yet the gentle rains and acidic soils make it a favoured environment for Aspalathus linearis, commonly known as rooibos or red bush. The plant is used to make a herbal tea, long popular in Southern Africa and now experiencing a boom in the West due to its high level of antioxidants, lack of caffeine and low tannins.
The local people in the Suid Bokkeveld have long been discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, and they have long been marginalized, with minimal services and widespread poverty. Small-scale farmers had poor access to land, markets and rooibos-tea processing facilities, and as a result received low prices for their products.
They lacked any form of organization and did not have a common platform to advance their interests, explains Noel Oettle of the Environmental Monitoring Group, an NGO which has been working with the Suid Bokkeveld community since 1998. After deciding to form a business organization, a group of rooibos farmers chose the cooperative structure. They were dependent on processing facilities owned by larger farmers, and were keen to cut down on costs by establishing a collective facility.
In November 2000, initial discussions were held with representatives from the Dutch Fair Trade Organisatie, and the prospect of receiving premium prices and having a reliable market for their tea further encouraged the producers to set up a cooperative. Their rooibos was already being produced organically, because of the high cost of inputs, and so organic certification was the obvious next step.
The Heiveld Co-operative was founded by 14 members in early January 2001, and since then has gone from strength to strength. By 2005, the cooperative had its own tea court, where the rooibos is chopped, fermented and dried. As well as operating the processing facility, the cooperative also provides organic and fair-trade certification services to its members, as well as training on sustainable resource use, adaptation to climate change, organic production and sustainable harvesting. It also exports bulk and packaged rooibos to domestic and international clients and sells inputs like seed to members.
Oettle says that the cooperative has a unique system of profit division, enshrined in its constitution. Seventy per cent of profits are divided amongst members on the basis of the value of the business that they have transacted with the cooperative, including sales of rooibos tea, purchase of tea-making services or rooibos seed, she said. Then the remaining thirty per cent are divided equally amongst the less wealthy members of the cooperative.
In the future, the cooperative will have to deal with the on-going effects of climate change. Since a severe drought in 2003, the members have been meeting every three months to review climate variations and plan strategies for responding to the expected weather.
The Suid Bokkeveld is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and the farmers are adapting to the changing rain patterns by creating windbreaks on their lands to limit drying, erosion and wind damage, preventing soil erosion by managing run-off water more effectively and removing water-hungry invasive plant species. They are now experimenting with switching to wild rooibos, more resistant than the cultivated version, making the Heiveld Co-operative the worlds first supplier of sustainably harvested wild rooibos.