Rooibos tea comes from the plant Aspalathus linearis which grows only in the Western and Northern Cape areas. San and Khoi people, the indigenous peoples of southern Africa, have been harvesting, processing and drinking rooibos tea long before colonial times, passing traditional knowledge regarding the medical properties of rooibos between generations.
Under colonialism, the atrocities of genocide, enslavement and resource extraction concentrated political, economic and social power in the hands of colonists. One of those resources was the traditional knowledge around rooibos; during the apartheid in South Africa, the Rooibos Tea Control Board held a complete monopoly over production and marketing.
Today, the commercial rooibos industry is worth an estimated 500 million rand (~40 million CAD) per year, with 85% of the tea exported. The ongoing legacy of colonialism has meant that those who profit are largely white. The Rooibos Tea Control is now the company Rooibos Limited, which continues to hold a near monopoly and as recently as 2017 faced allegations around “abuse of dominance.” “Coloured” individuals (a term used to collectively refer to mixed race descendants of settlers, former slaves and Khoi or Bantu people) produce only 2% of rooibos. Economic benefits are at risk of being increasingly outsourced – by 2016 there had been 141 patents filed for rooibos, mostly by foreign companies. Against this backdrop of a thriving industry based on indigenous knowledge, many San and Khoi people face inequity and poverty.
It was nearly a decade of local advocacy efforts by Khoi and San peoples that led to a benefit-sharing agreement with the industry in 2019. Under the agreement, 1.5% of the cost of harvested rooibos paid by processors is shared between the San Council and National KhoiSan Council to be distributed to their communities. I don’t expect this is sufficient to “make up” for the legacy of colonialism, but it is likely a step towards reconciliation and beginning to reduce the material disadvantages that have become entrenched for some groups.
I hope that we see more of these sorts of agreements going forwards in many other areas. This basis lies in the 2010 Nagoya Protocol, an international treaty to respect the rights of local and indigenous communities to their traditional knowledge and genetic resources. It sets out a framework to ensure that benefits (economic and other) obtained by business or scientists are shared with those communities. This treaty is part of a broader (and rather resisted) effort of recognize the rights of indigenous peoples. The Nagoya Protocol nods to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by acknowledging the rights to controlling access to natural resources and territories, traditional knowledge, and to free, prior and informed consent regarding resource sharing and access. Other expected benefits of this protocol are to reinforce the importance of biodiversity, and appreciate the important role that traditional knowledge keepers play in conservation and sustainability.
Canada has a history of being rather reluctant to accept international treaties and documents acknowledging indigenous rights. While Canada has endorsed UNDRIP after being one of the 4 initially dissenting countries, it is not (nationally, at least) enshrined is legislation and thus not legally binding. Currently, Canada has not signed onto the Nagoya principle either. Consequently, it’s important to support local indigenous groups in their efforts to have their rights recognized.
When I started looking up rooibos, I didn’t really expect to come across any of this – but it’s another example of how food forms part of tradition, economy, and politics. And to dissociate it from its context would be to miss out on everything that makes food significant, valuable, controversial and uncomfortable.
- How justice can be brought to South Africa’s rooibos industry (The Conversation)
- San and Khoi claim benefits from rooibos (Mail & Guardian)
- Rooibos tea profits will be shared with Indigenous communities in landmark agreement (Nature)
- What does ‘implementing UNDRIP’ actually mean? (CBC News)
- Indigenous peoples’ right to consent already exists in Canada, UNDRIP or not (The Globe and Mail)
This recipe makes a rather lovely cake. It’s mildly adapted from a blueberry cake in Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, blueberries swapped for rooibos and strawberries, and a bit less sugar.
The cake is all the right things: rich/moist/tender, probably due a hefty butter-and-almond composition. There’s a bit of a coarser texture from the strands of shredded coconut, with pockets of strawberries, cooked through until jammy. The rooibos, infused in the butter, comes out well alongside the balmy flavours of vanilla, almond and coconut.
This is best eaten day of. As it’s quite moist, I kept it in the fridge over subsequent days and found it also eats rather well cold for a butter cake!
strawberry rooibos almond cake
Adapted from the blueberry coconut cake in Yotom Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s Sweet.
- 130g butter
- 4g finely ground rooibos
- 90g finely ground almonds
- 30g shredded coconut
- 75g granulated sugar
- 35g all-purpose flour
- slightly generous 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/8 tsp kosher salt
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp almond extract
- 100g strawberries, sliced unless very small in size
- 10g slivered almonds
Begin by infusing the butter. Melt the butter in a small pan and continue to heat until it begins to bubble. Stir in the rooibos, cover and set aside to steep for 1-2 hours.
Rewarm the butter to liquify it. Press the butter through a sieve to remove the tea and measure out 100g of infused butter that you’ll need for the cake (you may have some extra or need a bit more). Reserve 1 1/2 tsp of the rooibos you used to infuse the butter and stir it into the butter; discard the remainder.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Line the bottom of a 7″/18-cm springform pan with parchment paper and butter the sides.
Whisk together the ground almonds, coconut, sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
In a smaller bowl, whisk together the melted infused butter, eggs, vanilla and almond extract until smooth. Pour into the dry ingredients and combine to form a thick batter. Fold in 80g of the strawberries.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out the surface. Sprinkle with the remaining 20g of strawberries and the slivered almonds.
Bake for about 40 minutes or until an inserted skewer is removed clean. Let cool completely before serving.