Honeybush Ingredients and Products

Honeybush sustainable harvesting and cultivation

Sustainable harvesting vs. cultivation and making this plant a truly sweet prospect for all

We speak with Evert Greeff, Operational Manager of the Langkloof Honeybush Company, which is Grounded’s answer to supporting the emerging honeybush tea industry. Evert helps us parse the difference between wild harvesting and cultivation, and tells us why, when it comes to being mindful consumers, asking questions really, really matters.

By Thekla Teunis edited By Hailey Gaunt

3 November 2020

Blog artwork

Cultivating honeybush and relationships in South Africa’s Langkloof Valley

Tell us a little bit about the Langkloof. What defines it geographically and why is it so unique?

The Langkloof is mostly covered in fynbos, a low-growing vegetation type indigenous to South Africa. What makes the Langkloof so interesting geographically, is that it falls between two mountain ranges—the Tsitiskamma Mountain Range, which is your coastal area and a bit more lush, and the Kouga Mountains. As you go inland, the area starts changing. Obviously along your coast it’s a lot wetter, so you have forestry on the Tsitsikamma side, and then the Langkloof side it’s fynbos, and if you head way north into the Baviaanskloof, it’s even more dry. These are three distinct biomes.

We’re in a strange spot for rainfall. We sit on the edge of the winter-rainfall area, and sort of at the start of the summer rainfall area, which means anything is possible—winter or summer rainfall, or none at all.

In terms of agriculture in the area, it’s a lot of apple farming, mainly. That’s your main source of income for people here. Honeybush tea is a very small industry in general, and small in the Langkloof as well.

I’d say what makes the area unique though, is the people. You have people who have lived here their entire lives, both farmers and people living on the land for generations. It’s a small community, where everyone knows everyone.

Honeybush in the Langkloof landscape

Its unique geography and variable climate mark the Langkloof as a sensitive ecosystem
Photo by Gareth Hubbard

Tell us about the Langkloof Honeybush Company [LKHBCo]. What do you do?

I’ve been involved since the beginning of the Company, about two years ago. Now, it’s important to understand that we’re still in our infancy—as is the honeybush industry itself.

In this industry there are two distinct fields: cultivated and wild honeybush harvesting. I’ll start with the cultivated honeybush. As a company, we don’t own any land—all the honeybush crops we source are from small-scale farmers who grow honeybush on sections of their own land. We cultivate three species of honeybush in this region, which the farmers supply to us.

Because this is, in many ways, a traditional farming community, it’s important to understand the value of trust here. A lot of my work has been to build relationships with the community. That’s the only way we can actually have access to their honeybush, because, as I said, we don’t own the land. Once you have a connection, it’s important to maintain it, and that is an ongoing process.

We are involved in a honeybush nursery as well, which obviously falls under the cultivation side.

Honeybush nursery

A new honeybush nursery means the LKHBCo can provide secure access to high-quality seedlings for local farmers

Ok. Before you go into the wild harvesting side of the business, tell me a bit more about the nursery.

Basically, the nursery is an answer to supplying farmers with the right plant material to use in cultivation, and the problem of erratic employment. We’ve actually supported two local entrepreneurs, Cleston and Novan, to start their own honeybush nursery. They both have been living in the Langkloof their entire lives, and come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. They have a huge amount of knowledge, each having worked with honeybush for a decade. We helped them build some of the infrastructure for their seedling nursery—irrigation, organisation etc.—but much of what I do involves mentoring. At the moment LKHBCo supplies funding for the nursery, but the idea is to help Cleston and Novan stay in the industry so they can one day have a standalone business supplying farms in the area with honeybush seedlings.

Honeybush seedlings

Novan Matick, co-manager of the LKHBCo’s seedling nursery

How does wild harvesting work and who is involved?

It’s a really interesting aspect of what we do, and a lot harder to describe how it fits into the business. Let me frame it this way: until the Europeans came to the tip of Africa, the world outside of [what is now] South Africa didn’t know about honeybush. It was used by the people indigenous to this land, the descendants of whom are still the wild harvesters today. They’ve grown up knowing you can harvest and use honeybush, along with the important skills involved in successful wild harvesting. Cultivation and selling came with the Europeans, but it’s these communities who have been using this plant responsibly and sustainably for generations.

It’s important to remember that the wild stuff on the hillsides can’t easily be replenished, and it’s not going to become more abundant—what’s there is there. Unregulated wild harvesting is a big problem for the environment but also for the people who hold the traditional knowledge of wild harvesting. They are the ones who get pushed out of the value chain. If it wasn’t for the traditional knowledge holders, you and I wouldn’t even be here talking about honeybush. They possess the insight and skills that make the industry possible, and too often they’re not acknowledged or fairly compensated.

If it wasn’t for the traditional knowledge holders, you and I wouldn’t even be here talking about honeybush.

Why is wild harvesting a problem in this landscape? When it comes to preserving the wild species, what are the main threats?

Harvesting honeybush isn’t bad in itself—it can be cut and still replenish itself. In fact, fynbos as a floral kingdom benefits from things like fire in the wilderness, which stimulates more growth. The issues come when it’s cut too frequently. You actually need to wait four years between harvesting, so the plant can set seed again and the population can remain the same. There’s also the issue of invasive species, which is a massive problem with the nearby forestry operations, like with the pine forests in the Tsitsikamma.

But we can’t talk about sustainable wild harvesting without talking about cultivating honeybush—the two go hand-in-hand. To try and safeguard the wild stocks, cultivated honeybush really is necessary. If managed responsibly, it can help ensure the industry grows without harming the communities or the ecosystem.

So is cultivating honeybush the answer to the problem of unchecked collection of certain species? If that’s the case, why even wild-harvest?

The cultivated tea is there to preserve the wild stocks. Secondly, if you’re building a tea industry and you’re starting a company, like the LKHBCo, and you want to expand and have a consistent supply for the market, the only way to grow it is with cultivated tea. But it’s important to keep the wild stock very separate so not to impact the wild tea’s genetics.

The wild honeybush makes a better tasting tea—it has a totally different flavour. It adapts to the natural environmental conditions and even tends to produce better tea when it’s put under stress, like limited rainfall. There’s great quality here, but obviously not the volumes. Until we can figure out how to produce the same calibre in the cultivated variety, the wild stuff will remain the majority ingredient, which can only be sustainable for so long.

The wild honeybush makes a better tasting tea—it has a totally different flavour. It adapts to the natural environmental conditions and even tends to produce better tea when it’s put under stress, like limited rainfall.

What are some of the day-to-day concerns for people in the Langkloof Valley?

The biggest issue for the people here is jobs—availability and security. Wild harvesting is not a stable job. And on the farming side, we work with about five farmers who are cultivating honeybush. But the industry is still tiny—not sufficient as a primary income for those involved. If a farmer has one hectare of honeybush in the area that’s considered a big field

By partnering with organisations like Living Lands, an NGO that helps us implement our sustainable harvesting plans, we are also trying to address the job issue directly. A plan looks at how the landscape can be maintained and managed by people year-round. The idea is for the LKHBCo to use honeybush harvesters (knowledge-holders) to implement the management plan by managing demarcated areas to ensure that things like invasive species are kept in check, while honeybush and other indigenous species can grow. This way they can both generate a more stable income and contribute to conservation of a vulnerable ecosystem.

What is the value of keeping honeybush as a plant in the area—in environmental terms?

Honeybush belongs to quite a big genus. The Cyclopia genus encompasses several species, actually. We are currently cultivating three, and only wild-harvesting one. Not all the species we cultivate are native to the Langkloof—some belong in the Western Cape and elsewhere—so that means we need to be really strict about not allowing the cultivated species to spread to the wild, and interfering with the natural territories of each. Basically, we don’t know and can’t know all the ways plants interact and contribute to the balance of a landscape, but we know it’s a finely-tuned system, and we don’t want to disrupt it.

With our honeybush purchases, can we, as consumers, have an impact on the health of landscapes and communities like those of the Langkloof?

Yes. Not necessarily every consumer, but a certain type of consumer, has a very big stake in the success of this landscape and the people who live here. I see myself as a typical consumer. If I go to the shop, I buy a mainstream product; if I go buy tea or bread, I buy something I want to taste the same every time. This is where another type of consumer comes in. We are looking for a consumer who wants something different. At the end of the day, honeybush in itself isn’t going to make money, it’s the story behind it. That person who wants to have a bigger impact is looking for a story behind the tea—not necessarily only the tea itself.

So what are the questions consumers should ask about the honeybush they are buying?

First of all, Why? Why is this tea in this packet? That is a big thing for me. Consumers who want to make an impact with their purchases can’t take for granted that this is a product to be consumed—there needs to be that connection to where it started out.

Of all the companies we interacted with to make sales last year, just one asked this question. It was a small company, and they bought a tiny amount, but this was the most exciting thing for me. Asking this question, of course, leads to all the important follow-up questions—How? Where? Who? And because of LKHBCo’s commitment to transparency and ethical value chains, we keep all this information on record. I can give you GPS coordinates. I can show you photos of where the tea was harvested. I can tell you under what conditions it was harvested. I can tell you who harvested it.

We’re trying to have an impact by sourcing and harvesting honeybush sustainably, but we can’t do it without the consumer caring to know the answers to these questions. This is what gets me really excited.

I can give you GPS coordinates. I can show you photos of where the tea was harvested. I can tell you under what conditions it was harvested. I can tell you who harvested it.

Wild honeybush

Wild honeybush, growing on the high hillsides of the Langkloof

How does the LKHBCo ensure that honeybush is, in fact, harvested sustainably?

We are not responsible for harvesting the cultivated tea, that’s up to the farmer who we source from, but our NGO partner has developed cultivation guidelines that are like an instruction manual for farming this novel crop. I still monitor farms to see how they are managing their crops and advise on their process. It is possible to harvest too aggressively, which is unsustainable for the plant and, ultimately, for the economics of the farmer.

Wild harvesting is totally different. Last year we implemented sustainable harvesting guidelines. But implementing and monitoring are two different things. We learned a lot last year, including all the gaps in our efforts. For instance, because I cannot be in the mountains a hundred percent of the time while the harvesters are collecting honeybush, we now know that we need an additional person to actually support and oversee wild harvesters—a compliance officer. We found out little things too, like we need high visibility jackets for the harvesting team so we can easily identify where they are for a smoother, safer operation. As we are growing in the industry, we are learning a lot.

Honeybush Operational Manager of the LKHCo

Evert Greeff, Operational Manager of the LKHBCO

So because it’s still in its infancy, and fairly malleable, consumers have a real opportunity to steer the honeybush industry by demanding information from its brands. The LKHBCo is doing its part by offering these insights before there’s a high demand, but at the end of the day, the onus is on the consumer to ask—right?

Absolutely. One fuels the other. At the moment I can offer this information, but it’s only going to be possible to sustain this work if it’s motivated by the target market who want to invest in the backstory of this product. Luckily, it’s not just us who recognise the importance of this information. Because honeybush is a protected species, we now see the Department of Environmental Affairs is also pushing hard for this: permits are mandatory for intermediaries to even be able to buy and sell honeybush, and they are only issued to farmers in a sustainable timeframe that allows for regrowth of the plant. More and more, the Department won’t issue a permit unless a resource assessment has been done to collect data and indicate how much honeybush should be taken from the land. It’s these kinds of structures, and consumer-driven questions, which put muscle behind the work that we do.

At the moment I can offer this information, but it’s only going to be possible to sustain this work if it’s motivated by the target market who want to invest in the backstory of this product.

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