BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Business  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
E-Commerce
Economy
Market Data
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 07:09 GMT 08:09 UK
South African tea row brews up a storm
Rooibos plants
South African plants have many commercial applications

It's easy to imagine the bushmen living in the Cederberg Mountains three hours drive north of Cape Town.


It's not just about tea, it's about a national symbol and it's about market access for our products

Astrid Ludin, South African trade department
Their existence is betrayed by the cave paintings they left behind and a strange process of crushing, fermenting and drying one of the unique fynbos, or fine bush plants that fill the mountains - and making them into a tea.

For hundreds of years they used the healthy properties of the Rooibos plant to make a brew that is now South Africa's national natural drink and is becoming increasingly popular around the world.

Farmer Joubert Roux says sales to the UK have almost doubled in the last year, Germany is the biggest consumer, and of course America is the biggest potential market for a product with no caffeine and a long list of healthy characteristics.

Name game

But the name Rooibos has been trademarked in the US and producers looking to expand their market find themselves blocked.

George Grub, Rooibus Ltd
George Grub is standing firm
Now, they are prepared to launch court action and have now got their government on board.

"Under the current rules they could stop us at port of entry or they could even go as far as to remove our product from the shelves if it is marketed under the name Rooibos," says George Grub, the chairman of Rooibos Limited, which is fighting the trademark.

"The name Rooibos is a generic name like you have whisky or other products elsewhere. The person who registered the trademark knew it was an indigenous name and we will not change the name as that's what it is known as internationally."

Not without a fight

But the owner of the trademark is not willing to let the name go either: "The name Rooibos was totally unknown in the US in 1992. No-one was aware of Rooibos tea or the benefits that went with it," says Virginia Burke-Watkins, who is based in Dallas.


This is a world problem and therefore the issue of Rooibos is just an incident within the bigger picture

MacDonald Netshitenzhe, lawyer
"It took us many years to develop that market - trademarks may not mean a lot to South Africa, but it means everything in the US. If I didn't hold the trademark in the US someone else would."

US trademark law normally bans ownership of names which describe generic products, such as coffee or tea.

But according to Ms Burke Watkins, her trademark is legitimate because at the time when she registered it, the word "rooibos" was practically unknown in the US.

Any popularity it now has, she insists, is largely down to her efforts to advertise it as a health food product.

Government gets involved

It is one of a growing number of cases of indigenous names versus trademarks and it has given the South African Government an indication of just how much international trade they could be losing every year.

Rooibos tea
Not just tea - a national symbol
They have backed the action by the tea producers and are now cataloguing all their indigenous products to compare them against international databases to check if they have been trademarked.

"It's not just about tea, it's about a national symbol and it's about market access for our products," said Astrid Ludin, in the South African Department of Trade and Industry's consumer and corporate regulation division.

"The Rooibos issue has brought to the fore a host of problems and required a pro-active response from us. This is an indigenous name and Rooibos is an important export product."

Rights wronged

And indigenous rights is not just an issue peculiar to South Africa.

"This is a world problem and therefore the issue of Rooibos is just an incident within the bigger picture," says MacDonald Netshitenzhe, specialist lawyer with the South African DTI.

"The Amazon basin has its own specific problems, as does Europe and the rest of Africa - this is a multilateral arrangement and goes beyond one nation."

There is a lot more at stake in the long term, as South Africa has dozens of indigenous plants important in a variety of ways - all of them commercially.

Not only is the new research important for medicine, but as the South African government well knows it could be worth a lot of money to a country catching up on international trade after years of sanctions and isolation.

See also:

29 Aug 02 | Business
09 Jul 02 | Business
06 May 02 | Business
28 Mar 02 | Business
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Business stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Business stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes