I was surprised to hear that Rooibos is at the centre of a dispute between the South African Department of Trade and Industry and a French Company (Compagnie de Trucy). Matthias Leridon, president of Compagnie de Trucy, an investment company, says that they aim to create a luxury brand that includes Rooibos supplied by small producers. Leridon was a special advisor to the French Ministry of Defence and worked as a consultant in the office of the Minister for the Civil Service. Apart from Compagnie de Trucy, Leridon has set up a communications consultancy firm (Tilder) and sits on the board of directors of “African Artists for Development”.
Compagnie de Trucy is trying to secure the exclusive rights to market Rooibos in France by applying for a French trademark. Their application for the terms “Rooibos” and “South African Rooibos” was rejected but terms such as “Le comptoir du rooibos”, “Le palais du rooibos” are still under consideration. If successful, it would complicate the export of this local speciality to France and would involve the payment of royalties to the French firm. There is a trademark protection system call Geographic Indication (GI), which could be used to protect Rooibos. GIs points to a specific place, or region of production, that determines the characteristic qualities of the product. Examples include Darjeeling Tea from India, Champagne Wine from France, Gruyère from France and Connemara Hill lamb from Ireland. The database of EU geographical indications is here .
The process for achieving GI protection isn’t straightforward though. Rooibos needs to be protected within its country of origin and receive official trademark status there before it could qualify as a GI in the EU. This caused some problems because South African law did not previously have protection for geographical indications. However, the government has just approved a new Act (the Traditional Knowledge Act) that includes a provision for the protection of good “originating in the territory of the Republic or in a region or locality in that territory”.
It seems a little paradoxical that GI legislation was led by the wine industry in France and yet now they are at the centre of a dispute on the opposing side of GI protection. I personally think that Rooibos is the Champagne of South Africa and should be protected as such.