What South African Rooibos Tea Can Tell Us About Africa-China Trade Flows

Last month, China’s General Administration of Customs released its customs data for 2023. The data showed that China’s total trade with Africa grew a modest 1.5 percent in 2023, reaching $282.1 billion, but Africa’s trade deficit with China widened. While Chinese exports to Africa reached $173 billion, an increase of 7.5 percent over 2022, Africa’s exports to China dropped by 6.7 percent to $109 billion.

Given these figures, it came as welcome news that last month China reduced import tariffs for South African Rooibos tea from between 15 percent to 30 percent down to 6 percent. Despite being South Africa’s biggest trade partner and one of the world’s largest tea consumers, China’s high tariff rates for South African Rooibos tea have meant that China was just South Africa’s seventh-highest export destination in 2023, and prior to this, did not even make it to the top 10 for its famously healthy caffeine-free tea.

In comparison, China’s neighbor, Japan, despite applying a 17 percent tariff rate for Rooibos tea, has been South Africa’s top export destination for its Rooibos tea since 2020, because Japan has a large market for healthy tea. Japan is followed by European countries, such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands that offer zero tariffs for South African Rooibos teas as part of their Generalized Scheme of Preferences for developing countries. 

Given the size of China’s consumer market, China’s decision to reduce tariffs for South African Rooibos tea by almost 80 percent could make China a priority export market in future. This could not only help reduce the trade deficit between South Africa and China, but also, if branded Rooibos products come into China, it could provide South Africa the opportunity to boost job creation and its value-added exports to China. South Africa’s Rooibos industry produces approximately 20,000 tons annually and employs 5,000 people.

That said, there is one major challenge to this aspiration: Recognition of South Africa’s Geographical Indications (GIs), including the GI for Rooibos tea.

GIs grant distinct rights to “the qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product essentially due to the place of origin,” according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. In other words, GI protection allows producers to raise retail prices. Well-known examples include French champagne and brie, English cheddar, and Italian prosciutto di parma ham, which are recognized in many countries and regions, including China. 

Rooibos and other African products such as South African wine and Benin’s “sugarloaf” pineapples fall under the category of eligible Geographical Indications. On supermarket shelves, GI recognitions means these products must be original – others can’t manufacture versions of them, and the businesses that sell those products can ultimately get higher prices, meaning higher incomes in African countries.

China became Africa’s first partner to commit to developing a process to recognize Africa’s GIs at the eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2021, but no clear process has been revealed so far. With the ninth FOCAC due to take place in late 2024, and with the welcome push toward opening up China’s market to African products in recent years, African leaders need to ensure that a clear strategy to implement a process to recognize Africa’s GIs makes it to the FOCAC 9 agenda. 

There are already several Chinese companies importing unprocessed Rooibos tea leaves into China and packaging them under their own brands. Pushing for the recognition of African GIs and exporting GI products, such as Rooibos tea, can help African countries to compete with other regions in the Chinese market and create space for distinct, higher-value African products to enter the Chinese market. 

Fortunately, and with the recent tariff cut as an indication of goodwill and interest from China, South Africa is well positioned to lead the way in pushing for China to recognize African GIs. The South African Customs Union (SACU) has already secured the recognition of Rooibos tea’s GI status in the European Union in 2014 and the United Kingdom has also continued to recognize its GI post-Brexit.  SACU can apply lessons learned from its negotiations with the EU and work with other African regional bodies, including the African Continental Free Trade Area Secretariat, to negotiate GI deals with China. 

Indeed, a shared African strategy to see the FOCAC 8 pledge delivered, perhaps using Rooibos as a starting point, could make some difference to closing that trade deficit in 2024, so that both the volume and value of African exports to China consistently increases going forwards.

This article was originally published in The Diplomat. To view it, click here.

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Trevor Lwere

Research and Coordination Analyst

Trevor Lwere is a Research and Coordination analyst at Development Reimagined with a background in Economics and Global Affairs. His interests include geopolitics, geoeconomics and economic development. He holds a Masters’ degree in Global Affairs fro Tsinghua University and a BA Economics from the University of Notre Dame.

Yujie Shi

 Policy and Research Analyst

Yuejie Shi is a Research and Data Analyst at Development Reimagined with a special focus on Global Trade and China-Africa Trade.

Sena Voncujovi

Research Analyst

Sena Voncujovi is a research and policy analyst at Development Reimagined. Voncujovi specializes in global health issues, Japan-Africa relations, and China-Africa relations. He served as the Editor-in-chief of Peking University’s Africa Think Tank (PATT) during his master’s in International Relations & Politics as a Yenching Scholar. Voncujovi previously advised the Ghanaian government for the 2019 TICAD 7 Conference held in Yokohama. He is the co-founder of Jaspora, Tokyo’s largest community of African diasporan diplomats, changemakers, professionals, students, and business people.

Rugare Mukanganga


Rugare is an economist at Development Reimagined, providing economic and data analysis support across projects.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion.

Ivory Kairo

Communications Support

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team through liaising with African brands, creating graphic content and other external outputs at AR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French

Huiyi Chen

Partnership Development

Huiyi Chen is a Research and Coordination Analyst on China-Africa cooperation and leading the engagement with Chinese stakeholders at Development Reimagined.

Jinyu Chen

Research Analyst | Paris, France

Jinyu is a dual-degree Master’s student at Sciences Po & Peking University.  At Africa Reimagined, Jinyu produces research to foster better mutual understanding between African clients and Chinese consumers. 


Jade Scarfe

Communications Support
Jade is a research analyst and communication support at Africa Reimagined. She supports with liaising with African brands, creating content and gathering China market research.

Yike Fu

China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.

Rosie Wigmore

Project Manager | Beijing, PRC

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Leah Lynch

Deputy Director | Beijing, PRC

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.

Hannah Ryder

Founder and CEO 

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE’s International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


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