The term ‘herb’ is used specifically in reference to an aromatic plant’s leaves. Herbs can broadly be defined as plants used primarily for adding aromatic flavour to food. Herbs are also a popular ingredient in other gastronomic products such as condiments, seasonings and teas.

Mint is one of the most popular herbs purchased by South African consumers.

But herbs are not only produced for culinary use; they are also cultivated and used for medicinal purposes. Moreover, herbs are often included in the manufacture of perfumes, cosmetics and even dyes, to name a few. The popularity of herbs has increased globally and is expected to continue this upward trend in future.

Herbs for culinary use are sold fresh and processed. Herbs are also sold as live plants for home gardeners who favour the garden-to-table trend. This article focuses on fresh and processed herbs for culinary use. 

Global market growth

The global seasonings and spices market, which includes herbs, is expected to reach $20,46 billion by 2025, according to a 2019 report by Grand View Research. This represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3,9% for the forecast period.

The global demand for herbs is expected to reach $6,75 billion by 2025. The report highlights several drivers behind the growth of this segment, among others that the taste preference of consumers is changing to include authentic cuisines and this, along with rising disposable income and a large supply, ensures that market growth keeps escalating.

Coriander leaves are a favourite among South Africans.

The report focuses on some of the most popular herbs used globally, including rosemary, fennel, mint, parsley, and oregano. Other popular herbs include basil, coriander, chives, sage, and dill.

Local fresh herb market

The local popularity of herbs has increased dramatically. Wilma Haywood, section head for the prepack vegetables section at the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market for the RSA Group, says that she has noticed a significant increase in the demand for herbs at fresh produce markets in the past three years. She says that coriander, parsley, basil, mint, rosemary, and thyme seem to be the most popular.

Tender herbs such as basil are commonly grown in hydroponic systems.

According to data from a 2017 report by the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) on the South African herbs and spices market value chain, coriander and parsley has consistently been sold in the greatest quantities at fresh produce markets between 2007 and 2016 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Sales volumes of herbs sold at national fresh produce markets. (Source: Statistics and Economics Analysis, DAFF)

Table 1 shows that well over R600 000 worth of coriander was sold in both 2018 and 2019, while the volume of parsley sold was valued at R319 023 in 2018 and R429 507 in 2019. The value of coriander and parsley adds up to more than all other herb sales.

Table 1: April 2018 and 2019 comparison of sales and mass of various herbs at the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market.

 April 2018April 2019
ProductSalesMass (Kg)SalesMass (Kg)
BasilR3 4594318R3 4572399
ChivesR6 34836R6 66237
Coriander R663 41825 455R684 73327 615
DillR7 139180R15 483587
FennelR5 4396 565R64 0555 932
OreganoR4 46318R4 00420
MintR15 015635R12 019534
RosemaryR20 572153R22 150188
SageR2 20417R3 10948
ThymeR11 43088R6 63433
ParsleyR319 02311 723R429 50719 491

Trends per market segment

Wilma says that most of the herbs sold at fresh produce markets are bought by restaurants and wholesale buyers that process the herbs before selling them to restaurants and hotels. “It is the restaurant, hotel and wholesale sectors that are fuelling the current growth trend in the local herb market, rather than consumers who cook at home.”

Herbs such as thyme are easy growers and are found in many household gardens as well as commercial systems.

However, fresh produce markets represent only a segment of the total sales in the local herb industry, as many farmers sell directly to retailers. 

Marelize Scholtz, managing director of Federated Farmers, a division of the RSA Group which sells fresh produce on behalf of farmers to retailers, says that the demand for fresh herbs in the retail sector has also increased in recent years.

But although consumers are increasingly cooking with fresh herbs, Marelize says that it is still very much a niche market. She adds that in her experience, coriander, mint and parsley are in greatest demand.

Herb production trends

Today, herbs are often grown in urban areas. Wilma says that the herbs sold at the Johannesburg Fresh Produce Market are grown mainly in the direct surrounds of Johannesburg, cultivated for the most part in greenhouses and hydroponic systems.

Marelize says that although herbs are grown in various areas throughout the country, it is predominantly produced close to retail outlets. The reason for this is because, in terms of mass, herbs are very light, making it expensive to transport over long distances.

She says that herbs supplied by Federated Farmers’ producers are grown in a combination of systems. Tender annual herbs, such as basil, grow better in hydroponic systems, whereas a hardy perennial such as rosemary, fares well in an open field.  

For more information on the local herbs market, email Marelize Scholtz at marelize.scholtz@federated.co.za or Wilma Haywood at Wilma.haywood@rsa.co.za.
– Ursula Human, Farmbiz