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(Making the Origin Count: Two Coffees)...And a Tea

September 2007

Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis). Rich in anti-oxidants, South Africa’s national drink has become famous for its health giving properties. (Photo by Maya Leclercq)
Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis). Rich in anti-oxidants, South Africa’s national drink has become famous for its health giving properties. (Photo by Maya Leclercq)

“The Rooibos case was our wake-up call,” Dr. Dirk Troskie of South Africa’s Western Cape Department of Agriculture told participants at the 2007 Geographical Indications Symposium.

Often dubbed the national drink, South Africans have been drinking Rooibos tea for generations. The Rooibos (- literally “red bush”) plant thrives only in certain arid areas of western South Africa in very particular soil conditions. While Rooibos production only involves about 350 farmers, it plays an essential role in the culture and economy of certain rural communities in the Wupperthal and Heiveld regions. But word about the health-giving properties of Rooibos tea has spread like wildfire in recent years, leading to a worldwide boom in its popularity.

Back in 1992 a South African company, Forever Young, registered Rooibos as a trademark in the U.S. for use on skincare products. When the company’s owner retired in 2001, she sold the trademark for ten dollars to her American business partner, Burke International. While the major Rooibos processor in South Africa, Rooibos Ltd., had started procedures to get the trademark cancelled soon after its registration, the full implications only hit the popular press when a cooperative representing resource-poor Wupperthal farmers ran into legal problems trying to export their Rooibos to the U.S. Adding insult to injury, Burke International demanded royalties from South African companies for using the term Rooibos in the U.S. Fortunately for the South Africans, a number of U.S. coffee houses threw their weight behind the litigation process, as they too wanted to be able to sell Rooibos tea, and the case was settled out of court following a ruling in February 2005 by a district court in Missouri – but not before costing the industry $1 million.

The government and industry are urgently investigating how best to protect products such as Rooibos which are considered part of the country's heritage. (Photo by Maya Leclercq)
The government and industry are urgently investigating how best to protect products such as Rooibos, which are considered part of the country's heritage. (Photo by Maya Leclercq)

The case led to the establishment of the Rooibos Council, and prompted the government and the industry to look with renewed urgency into how to protect products such as Rooibos, which are perceived as part of the country’s heritage. 

The options under consideration include the use of geographical indications (GIs). South Africa currently has two institutional systems for protecting GIs. The system for wines and spirits is long established and successful. The system for protecting non-alcoholic products, however, is described by Dr. Troskie as a mix of trademark, unfair competition and consumer protection laws, driven primarily by South Africa’s obligations to comply with international commitments, notably under the TRIPS Agreement. “The result,” he laments, “is that the system is geared more towards protecting foreign GIs than domestic GIs.”

The Rooibos case has boosted the momentum for institutional change. Together with other stakeholders, South African government departments are now involved in a number of major collaborative research projects centered on understanding how GIs could be used to protect products other than wines and spirits. Rooibos tea has been included as one of six case studies from Southern Africa. To this end, detailed specifications have been drawn up - based both on consensus and on scientific evidence of the requirements for the production of quality Rooibos tea – covering geographical conditions, production practices, harvesting, biodiversity and processing standards.

If successful, registration will not only safeguard South African ownership of an emblematic product, but will also benefit the South African producers by adding value at the point of production, instead of only after export.

Elizabeth March, WIPO Magazine Editor, Communications and Public Outreach Division

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.