Tucked away in the magnificent Cederberg Mountain Range in the Western Cape hides one of Mzansi’s oldest and most historic villages – Wupperthal. The small community is home to 75 humble and hardworking rooibos farmers who form part of the Fair Wupperthal Rooibos Cooperative.
The farmers who are part of the Cooperative are all proud descendants of the Khoesan people who inhabited the area centuries ago. Many of their forefathers also farmed with Wupperthal Rooibos, which is a single estate commodity that is only farmed in this area. It was here that Europeans first encountered rooibos more than 200 years ago.
According to Edgar Valentyn, a fifth-generation rooibos farmer, the tea brewed from these indigenous plants is naturally sweet with subtle caramel and fruity aromas. It is the lifeblood of this small, rural community. “We are proud to be custodians of the world’s best rooibos,” Valentyn says.
Apart from being a farmer himself, Valentyn is also the chairman of Fair Wupperthal Rooibos Cooperative. The cooperative was established in 2013 to address the needs of the farmers who were selling their rooibos individually instead of cooperatively.
One of the problems that arose from this was that farmers had to travel long distances to sell their harvest to industry markets and they weren’t earning as much they should have. “We started the cooperative to represent the interests of the farmers and also help them provide a better future to their families,” Valentyn explains.
But this was not enough. Wupperthal residents felt that their traditional links to the Khoe and San people weren’t acknowledged and, as a result, the local community were not enjoying financial benefits for preserving the agriculture rituals of their ancestors.
This started changing in October 2015. The cooperative entered into a long-term agreement with Bestinvestin, an agri processing firm based in Cape Town.
The Managing Director of Bestinvestin, Matthew Sampson, says the company’s primary philosophy is the upliftment of indigenous producers and communities in the areas in which it operates.
“We have a life-long commitment to Wupperthal and its people, and are working hard to drive positive change there,” Sampson adds.
Bestinvestin purchases each harvest at a certain market price and then pays each farmer directly. “We used to take out contracts with commercial farmers who had the facilities and machinery to process the rooibos. They would then sell it to exporters and processors for much higher prices,” says Valentyn.
During harvest season Bestinvestin rents a tractor that is made available by the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s Mechanisation Programme to collect harvested rooibos. The rooibos is then transported to a weighing and collection point in Wupperthal Central. Many of the 75 farmers’ tea fields are so remotely located that they are inaccessible even to tractors, Sampson says.
Bestinvestin then uses a black-owned transport company in Clanwilliam to transport the harvest to Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape Province. There, the rooibos is cut, dried, pasteurised and packaged at the world-class Nieuwoudtville Rooibos processing facility. After being processed, only the finest cuts are used in the pyramid-shaped tea bags of the newly developed Wupperthal Rooibos 1830 luxury brand.
Sampson says that the cooperative farmers will also benefit by earning 5% of revenue generated through Bestinvestin’s sales of Wupperthal Rooibos 1830. After spending many expensive months coming up with tamper proofing for the luxury packaging, they were recently able to get listed by Yuppiechef and Tsogo Suns 4 and 5 star hotels.
“We are entering the sales phase of our business cycle, fortunately with two prominent partners. We have sold some bulk rooibos in the past and those revenue shares were paid to the cooperative, but those amounts are small and definitely had no material impact on the lives of our producers or the community there. That change starts with our sales with our new clients over the next six to twelve months,” Sampson says.
Bestinvestin is also working with leaders in the cold beverage industry to introduce novel luxury products to the export, specifically Asian markets.
Not only do farmers benefit, but the rest of the community does too. “1% of Bestinvestin’s revenue from the sales of Wupperthal Rooibos 1830 are paid to the Wupperthal Community Development Trust,” Sampson explains. The Wupperthal Community Development Trust was established by Bestinvestin for the benefit of all the residents of Wupperthal. “They are the holders of the traditional knowledge related to Wupperthal Rooibos,” he says.
For the past three years, Bestinvestin has also helped the farmers gain access to seedlings and provide them with services required for soil preparation and ploughing. This forms part of their farmer support programme. In 2018, the cooperative, with financial assistance from Bestinvestin, managed to prepare and plant an additional 100ha of rooibos fields. This resulted in 26 new producers being introduced to the agricultural economy.
Of the 75 Fair Wupperthal Rooibos members, 10 are young farmers, all of whom are second, third or fourth generation farmers. “I think that there would be more interest from the youth if there was more land available. Currently there is little land available to expand rooibos production here in Wupperthal,” Valentyn explains.
The 31-year-old Nicole Kupido has been farming rooibos on one hectare for the past six years. She’s a third-generation farmer and says she got involved in farming by watching her father plant tea and realising that she also wanted to participate. “There are not many work opportunities in our community, so I decided that this would be an interesting industry for me to journey into, and I’m loving it. I want to grow as a rooibos farmer and farm on a bigger scale,” she says.