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Boosting SA’s indigenous honeybush tea industry

The local honeybush tea industry has been receiving major support through a focused multi-year project implemented by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC).

It has already greatly expanded practical know-how on the best practices available to the growing local honeybush industry.

The project is part of ongoing efforts to strengthen the industry and its people, and to ensure that the indigenous teas being produced in South Africa are ultimately of such a high standard that it can compete on the tea markets of the world.

The project, stretching from April 2019 to March 2022, received R5-million in funding from the SA Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in 2019.

It is a follow-up of similar projects funded by DSI since 2010, interlinked with other ongoing research projects at the ARC. It builds on decades’ worth of research that have been driven by the ARC since the mid-1990s.

With this kind of backing, honeybush tea is set to become an important niche crop that contributes to meaningful socio-economic development in rural areas, says Dr Aunk Chabalala, Director of the Indigenous Knowledge-based Technology Innovation Unit of the DSI.

“Such projects are broadening the scope of indigenous knowledge sharing about the use of South Africa natural resources and are providing a necessary platform for products.

“The project emphasises traditional community development and the establishment of small, micro and medium enterprises (SMME) related to honeybush tea.”

Such is the appreciation from the industry itself for the work driven by the ARC that two of its staff members, Prof Lizette Joubert and Dr Cecilia Bester, were named as honorary members of the South African Honeybush Association Tea Association (SAHTA) in 2019.

SAHTA chair Mr Eugene Smith praised the DSI/ARC honeybush project and its partners for the ongoing work being done to strengthen the fledgling industry.

“All research done on honeybush at the ARC is somehow of practical help to the industry,” says Smith. “Much effort and time have been invested over the years in training traditional communities who are involved in the honeybush industry.”

As partners of the project, ARC staff provide one-to-one support to five SMMEs: Sonskyn Heuningbos (Haarlem, Western Cape), Driefontein Heuningbos (Friemersheim, George, Western Cape), Kuyasa Amamfengu (Kareedouw, Eastern Cape), Clackson Heuningbos (Eastern Cape) and Thornham Heuningbos (Eastern Cape) – all serve as vehicles for the commercialisation of the ARC’s honeybush genetic material.

“We are developing seed orchards, nurseries and honeybush tea plantations in these communities,” says Dr Bester.

At the end of 2020, a honeybush propagation and nursery management course was held at Thornham, near Storms River Bridge. Such was the interest from far and wide that all seats were taken it within a week. The course was presented by Dr Cecilia Bester, project manager of this project, whose research at ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij focuses on plant breeding, cultivation and development and training of traditional communities.

About the importance of supporting nursery owners, Dr Bester says: “Having a constant supply of seedlings and cuttings available to be planted on participating farms is essential to the growth and sustainability of the honeybush industry, and a most important part of the value chain.

In this, nurseries play an extremely important role. The better these are managed, and the more know how that nursery owners have, the better. Even though times may be tough in the industry, it is important that we are prepared for when the market turns and have plant material available.”

Research and value-adding

To strengthen these endeavours, the ARC and its research partners focus on cultivation and product research. This includes studies about producing value-added food products and nutraceuticals based on honeybush extracts.

The current project includes research partners from various research entities and universities in South Africa, such as Stellenbosch University (SU), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and the South African Medical Research Council (MRC).

Together they strive to provide advice on best practices to farmers, nursery owners, processors and marketing agents that are grounded in solid scientific evidence.

Studies are conducted by researchers and postgraduate students in the fields of among others horticulture, soil science and food science. Their efforts contribute to knowledge sharing and human capacity building within the indigenous knowledge space and agricultural sector in South Africa.

Aspects such as tea quality and standards in tea processing are investigated, as well as enhance propagation and irrigation methods.

In light of climate change, studies are also done to identify species that are more drought-tolerant, while the nutraceutical potential of the plant is also investigated.

On a practical level, funding has been made available by the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project to compile a manual and hold workshops for industry role players such as processors, blenders, packers and marketers on how to use a new standardised quality grading system to evaluate honeybush tea in a standardised and consistent manner.

The grading system itself was developed by Dr Brigitte du Preez (who received her PhD in Food Science in December 2020 from Stellenbosch University), Prof Lizette Joubert of the ARC and Ms Nina Muller of Stellenbosch University through funding from the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s Alternative Crop Fund. 

“The aim throughout is to ensure that honeybush tea of a consistent good quality reaches the consumer,” says the project leader responsible for product research, Dr Lizette Joubert of the ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch. Joubert is among others an expert on processing and quality aspects related to honeybush tea.

“The combined efforts of researchers are adding value to the crop and are boosting the development of new, value-added honeybush products for local and international markets.

“This niche tea industry has great potential, especially if stronger markets for products can be developed. It also has potential as a nutraceutical, and that is why we are also doing research to identify selections from the honeybush breeding programme that could deliver high levels of bioactive compounds,” she adds.

Knowledge sharing

Dr Bester regularly shares some of the findings about cultivation methods coming out of research projects driven by the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project with industry partners.

“It is important for farmers to know which Cyclopia species are the best in terms of productivity, vigour and adaptability under mass planting conditions, and which when being processed delivers products with the best sensory qualities,” she adds.

Recent PhD research by Dr Jennifer Koen done at TUT and ARC on the characteristics of honeybush pollen, flowers, seeds and pollination for instance highlighted that the flowers of all species are not morphologically the same, and that and the timing for pollination is critical.

She found that pollen is still viable after being frozen for two years, which is a huge benefit for the breeding of honeybush. She also tested various sugar-based mediums and basal salt formulations that can be used successfully in embryo rescue and in vitro seed germination.

Through her PhD research, Gugu Mabizela of TUT and the ARC focuses on identifying Cyclopia species and optimum harvest time to produce quality tea. She found that the best quality Cyclopia genistoides and Cyclopia subternata (two species commercially farmed with) is produced when the plants are harvested in summer and autumn, respectively. Summer harvesting is more practical if artificial drying is used during processing.

Source: Agricultural Research Council (ARC)

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