RSG Landbou, honeybush
Honeybush tea is made from some of the 23 species of Cyclopia plants that occur naturally in South Africa’s fynbos region. Photo: ARC.

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The local honeybush industry is receiving major support through a focussed multi-year project implemented by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). The council 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 produced in South Africa (SA) are ultimately of such a high standard that they can compete in the tea markets of the world.

Prof Lizette Joubert is the project leader responsible for product research as part of the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project. She is based at ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch. Photo: Engela Duvenage.

The project, running 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 has 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 Aunkh Chabalala, director of the Indigenous Knowledge-based Technology Innovation Unit of the DSI.

As part of the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project, Dr Cecilia Bester oversees research at ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij in Stellenbosch, focussing on plant breeding, cultivation and development, and training of traditional communities. Photo: Engela Duvenage.

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

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 SA Honeybush Tea Association (SAHTA) in 2019.

SAHTA chairperson 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 involved in the honeybush industry.”

Training and community development

The DSI/ARC Honeybush Project provides, among other things, training to traditional communities in rural areas where honeybush is cultivated and/or harvested.

As partners of the project, ARC staff provide one-on-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) 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 booked within a week. The course was presented by Dr Bester, project manager, whose research at ARC Infruitec-Nietvoorbij focusses on plant breeding, cultivation and development, and training of traditional communities.

Honeybush research

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 SA, such as Stellenbosch University (SU), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and the SA Medical Research Council (MRC).

Together, they strive to provide advice on best practices to producers, nursery owners, processors and marketing agents that is grounded in solid scientific evidence. Studies are conducted by researchers and postgraduate students in the fields of, horticulture, soil science, food science, and more.

Seed orchards, nurseries and honeybush tea plantations are developed in rural communities as part of the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project. Photo: Cecilia Bester/ARC.

Their efforts contribute to knowledge sharing and human capacity building within the indigenous knowledge space and agricultural sector in SA. Aspects such as tea quality and standards in tea processing are investigated, as well as enhanced propagation and irrigation methods. Considering 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, the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project has made funding has made funding available to compile a manual and host workshops for industry role-players such as processors, blenders, packers and marketers. These also workshops covered topics such as 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 SU), Prof Lizette Joubert of the ARC, and Nina Muller of SU, 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 Dr Joubert, an expert on processing and quality aspects related to honeybush tea.

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

“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 doing research to identify selections from the honeybush breeding programme that could deliver high levels of bioactive compounds,” she adds.

Knowledge sharing

The tea is brewed from both plant leaves and stems and is naturally caffeine-free. It has a low tannin content and is rich in antioxidants. Photo: ARC.

Dr Bester regularly shares some of the findings about cultivation methods coming from research projects driven by the DSI/ARC Honeybush Project along 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 – deliver products with the best sensory qualities,” she adds.

Through her PhD research, Gugu Mabizela of the Tshwane University of Technology and the ARC found that the best quality Cyclopia genistoides and Cyclopia subternata (two species commercially cultivated) are produced when the plants are harvested in summer. Photo: ARC

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 of 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. Dr Koen 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 focusses on identifying Cyclopia species and optimum harvest times 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. – Press release, DSI/ARC Honeybush Project