Sustainability standards and certifications increasingly represent multi-billion-dollar brands that partner with corporate firms. We employ the case of South Africa's Rooibos tea industry to analyze the impacts of this shift. Examining five sustainability initiatives, our research focuses on small-scale farmers and the power dynamics shaping their involvement. The Rooibos initiatives engaged multiple approaches, but none realized sustainable outcomes. Third-party and corporate efforts exposed producers to risk and reified dependency, industry actions did not achieve intended goals, and a shared leadership project failed to address material barriers to participation. Yet examples of good practice offer insight into the types of policies needed to improve outcomes. These include shifting from a hierarchical to a relational orientation by reducing certification costs, extending support services, and ensuring inclusivity in planning and governance. We conclude by arguing that markets are a perilous tool for development. Sustainable trade systems nevertheless illustrate the promise of market-based sustainability, as these are providing marginal groups with a platform to demand more equitable arrangements.

INTRODUCTION

World markets are experiencing a “certification revolution” due to consumer demand for goods that meet social and environmental standards (Conroy 2007). Traditionally located at the margins of markets, sustainable trade systems increasingly operate in partnership with major corporations (Davenport and Low 2013). These offer a counterpoint to the destructive practices found in global value chains and range from third-party certifications such as Fairtrade and organics to internally monitored corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. In addition to affecting global markets, sustainable trade systems have begun to influence commerce in the global South, where actors are opening domestic markets to goods that promote both local and global sustainability agendas (Hughes, McEwan, and Bek 2015). While these shifts offer potential to marginal producers who are seeking buyers committed to social responsibility, managing certifications requires considerable resources and skills (Keahey 2016). There is a need to study power dynamics as well as to determine the efficacy of practices.

In postapartheid South Africa, the Rooibos tea industry is struggling to address stark racial disparities deriving from a history of exploitation and exclusion (Coombe, Ives, and Huizenga 2014). We employ the case of Rooibos to examine the impact of market-based approaches to sustainability on small-scale coloured producers.1 Our study analyzes their experiences with five initiatives that sought to benefit from or improve access to socially and environmentally responsible markets. These are (1) a Fairtrade packaging scheme; (2) a corporate community tea campaign; (3) organic Rooibos seedling research; (4) a biodiversity labeling initiative; and (5) a shared leadership program. Addressing the question of sustainability in different ways, these efforts employed a variety of development strategies. Yet none realized sustainable outcomes, demonstrating the extent of challenges as well as the need to develop more holistic approaches.

This article informs development scholarship in three key ways. First, we reveal the breadth of market-based approaches to sustainability and examine how these are informing production in the global South. Whereas previous studies have focused on specific certifications and practices, our work captures common challenges and broader potentials. Second, we show how complex barriers reinforce disparities, hindering local efforts to meet increasingly stringent standards. With a focus on vertical power, global value chain (GVC) studies have ignored horizontal cleavages (Phillips 2014). The failure to account for historical, social, and environmental influences has stymied policy making (Bolwig et al. 2010). To address this gap, we use a network approach to investigate “the complex ideological and material relations enacted in commodity production and exchange” (Raynolds 2009:1085). Third, we consider good practices, providing more comprehensive insight into the types of policies needed to improve outcomes.

After problematizing sustainability, power, and participation in relation to GVCs, we discuss the impacts of colonialism and apartheid on South African agriculture. Next, we describe our research methods and present case study findings. The remainder of the article analyzes Rooibos challenges and prospects, first by distinguishing between structural and relational barriers and then by sharing promising strategies for improvement. As we discuss, sustainable trade systems offer potential to small-scale Rooibos farmers, but there is a critical gap between intention and practice. This gap is fueling uncertainty about the means and ends of market-based sustainability. In our view, markets are unlikely to realize environmentally sustainable and socially just outcomes without fundamentally transforming the terms of engagement. This includes moving from a vertical to a relational power orientation by reducing certification costs, extending support services, and ensuring inclusivity in planning and governance.

POWER AND PARTICIPATION IN SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

The World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) has defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 43). In addition to focusing on environmental factors, this report recognized the importance of social issues related to poverty and justice (Sen 2013). In recent years, business interests have promoted a three-pillar people-planet-profit model of sustainability (Fisk 2010). It is argued that embracing socially and environmentally responsible practices enables businesses to develop smarter innovations, assume more strategic market positions, and achieve higher levels of growth. Increasingly prevalent in neoliberal markets, this orientation supports multiple concerns but prioritizes economic ones by emphasizing the notion of commercial sustainability. Yet more specific ideas about sustainability remain spatially and temporally complex (Mog 2004). For example, the South African state has embraced the three-pillar model, but it also defines sustainability within the context of postapartheid politics. As such, it calls for collaborations that strengthen democratic processes by raising the voices of marginal groups (DEAT 2008).

The notion of multistakeholder participation has become prevalent in sustainability circles. In particular, sustainable agriculture has developed methods that connect experts with farmers to examine uncertainties and solve complex challenges (Pretty 1995). Within the broader discourse, scholars argue that “sustainable development should be based on local-level solutions derived from community initiatives” rather than from top-down approaches that emphasize expert control (Leach, Mearns, and Scoones 1999:225). Indeed, participatory practices provide a means for transcending ideological and material differences (Zaccai 2012). Yet such initiatives are difficult to implement and risk being coopted by elite interests when less advantaged groups operate at the margins of planning and governance (Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013). Rural stakeholders are particularly vulnerable to conflicts and the subordination of local knowledge to elite worldviews (Johansen and Chandler 2015). These issues are intensified in South Africa, where black and coloured people experience acute poverty (Lehohla 2014), and where nearly three-quarters of the nation's poor reside in rural areas (Neves and Du Toit 2013).

MARKET-BASED APPROACHES TO SUSTAINABILITY

GVC scholars examine the multinational production and trade processes that give rise to global goods (Gereffi, Humphrey, and Sturgeon 2005). In the neoliberal era, value chains are driven by buyer interests, with large corporations overseeing the activities of their suppliers via corporate standards related to product quality and increasingly to social and environmental issues that are considered central to their brand identity (Hughes, McEwan, and Bek 2013). African producers have responded to these transformations by moving into higher-level production processes or by acquiring certifications that enable their entry into specialized markets (Gibbon and Ponte 2005). While these forms of upgrading provide producers with opportunities to access value-added markets, such moves involve commercial risk (Ponte and Ewert 2009).

Conceptually distinct from state and market, civil society represents a “third sector of development” (Viterna, Clough, and Clarke 2015:173). Within global markets, certifications generally are governed by third-party organizations that employ a voluntary approach to production and trade regulation. Systems such as Fairtrade and organics challenge conventional practices by redefining product quality in relation to social and environmental value (Ponte 2016). Fairtrade buyers meet minimum pricing standards for certified purchases, pay social premiums to producer organizations, and ideally develop long-term trading relations. In return, certified producers meet stringent production standards and regularly submit to third-party audits (Raynolds and Greenfield 2015). Producers often seek dual Fairtrade and organic certification, particularly in Africa, where Fairtrade “is closely linked to organic initiatives in seeking to halt environmental degradation” (Raynolds and Keahey 2008:213). There are cases where Fairtrade partnerships have led to transformative industry arrangements (Doherty and Tranchell 2007). Yet there also is evidence that the institutionalization of standards has disproportionately served market interests (Jaffee and Howard 2010).

In addition to sustainability certifications, market-based approaches include corporate social responsibility (CSR). Employing the language of civil regulation, these efforts are privately monitored and provide business interests with a way to access sustainability markets without submitting to third-sector oversight (Matten and Moon 2008). Proponents of CSR note the potential of markets to achieve a range of sustainability objectives; and in South Africa, the notion of corporate citizenship is tied to postapartheid policies that stipulate sustainability reporting and socially responsible investments (Visser 2005). Yet CSR efforts have been riddled with contradictions, and it is unclear whether “the curative power of compassionate capitalism” can “stymie corporate greed” in African industries where highly inequitable practices and relations remain intact (Blowfield and Dolan 2008:2).

Although GVC scholars have explored questions pertaining to sustainability and power, knowledge remains limited. First, studies either ignore the influence of certifications on industry arrangements or treat sustainability “as a modular ‘add-on’ to chain organization” (Bush et al. 2015:16). This narrow focus prevents scholars from theorizing governance beyond the limited scope of technical management. Second, studies tend to maintain a top-down view of power that fails to capture local dimensions, such as those based on race relations (Phillips 2014). In contrast, the commodity network approach developed by Raynolds (2002, 2009) facilitates a more nuanced analysis of the power dynamics occurring within certified commodities. As sustainable trade systems employ different regulatory protocols and compete for access to producers and markets (Nelson and Tallontire 2014), this relational orientation may be used to clarify how market-based approaches to sustainability are affecting industries as a whole.

THE INEQUITABLE TERRAIN OF SOUTH AFRICAN AGRICULTURE

Colonial regimes appropriated land throughout sub-Saharan Africa for commercial production. However, this process was highly uneven, and both small-scale and subsistence farming remain prevalent in many areas of the continent. The primary exception is South Africa, where the estate system shares several broad similarities with the development of the hacienda system in Latin America and other colonial regimes (Lastarria-Cornhiel, Melmed-Sanjak, and Phillips 1999). During South Africa's colonial era, white settlers appropriated land, forcing black and coloured inhabitants into servitude. The estate model that emerged at this time became entrenched in the twentieth century when the apartheid state promoted industrial development through large-scale commercial production. In postapartheid South Africa, whites have continued to own most of the nation's commercial farmland (Chikulo 2015). Moreover, estate production has become increasingly concentrated. Not only do white-owned estates produce nearly all the agricultural goods destined for markets, but just 5 percent of these capture over 60 percent of South Africa's aggregate net farm income (Aliber and Cousins 2013).

Given its failure to achieve significant land reforms, the postapartheid state has prioritized improving labor conditions on estates. Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) codes have been instituted to facilitate the entry of previously disadvantaged populations into managerial and ownership positions in industry and trade (DTI 2009). These codes are mandated by law, but the state lacks enforcement capacity. Fairtrade certifiers have sought to fill this gap by working with estates to address farmworker issues. In addition to meeting global standards, certified estates in South Africa must demonstrate progress in terms of meeting national B-BBEE requirements as part of the Fairtrade auditing process (Kruger and Du Toit 2007).

Despite the dominance of white-owned estates, black and coloured producers have begun to enter commercial markets, typically as small-scale farmers. The postapartheid state has designated these farmers as “emerging” in recognition of their historical exclusion from land and markets (Cousins 2010). Although a few emerging farmers operate commercial estates, most of this population resides on small plots of land in former ethnic homelands where food is grown for subsistence as well as for sale (Aliber and Cousins 2013). The concerns of these small-scale farmers are not well understood; thus our work focused on this population. The following section briefly contextualizes the terrain of Rooibos production and presents our research methods.

RESEARCH ARENA AND METHODS

A member of the Cape fynbos floral kingdom, Rooibos is a uniquely South African product that originates in the Cederberg Mountains of southwestern South Africa (Binns et al. 2007). As an herbal tea, Rooibos joins an array of Southern products that have received the legal distinction of terroir (Besky 2013; Biénabe and Marie-Vivien 2015). Similarly to Darjeeling tea in India, perceptions of value in Rooibos are tied to its colonial legacy and postcolonial narratives of sustainability that promote notions of fairness as well as the idealized imagery of cultural production within pristine nature (Besky 2014). While white-owned estates typically are located along the western slope of the Cederberg where wide valleys and greater rainfall support production, coloured farmers tend to farm small plots in the arid and rugged interior. This racialized distribution derives from the trajectory of colonial settlement that gave rise to coloured rural areas as well as from apartheid-era dislocations that led to a near-total dispossession of arable land (May and Lahiff 2007). There are concerns that the legal distinction of terroir may exacerbate racial disparities “by conferring benefits primarily upon white farm owners who already control the land and means of production” (Coombe et al. 2014:225).

The lead author conducted fieldwork in South Africa throughout 2010, subsequent to the launch of numerous sustainability initiatives in Rooibos and during a period of certification difficulties. In total, 95 interviews were completed with small-scale farmer leaders and farmers as well as with local elders and professional experts. The latter group included (1) producer organizations; (2) processors, distributors, and packagers; (3) an umbrella industry network; (4) Fairtrade organizations; (5) B-BBEE operatives; and (6) environmental groups. The lead author also was embedded with a shared leadership program that involved a network of small-scale farmer leaders representing several coloured communities. Participant observation of training workshops and networking activities provided critical insight into their concerns, and preliminary findings were shared with project stakeholders. The following section presents our findings. After covering the multifaceted influences shaping Rooibos engagement, we discuss the five sustainability initiatives occurring in the industry at time of research.

SOUTH AFRICA'S EMERGING ROOIBOS INDUSTRY

Emphasizing their presence at the geographic point of origin for Rooibos, small-scale farmers discussed the importance of Rooibos to coloured heritage. According to oral histories told by local elders, coloured people originally traveled into the Cederberg as the slaves of Afrikaner trekkers. When these settlers left in search of more arable lands, a number of coloured people remained in the remote mountains. Establishing homesteads in the early nineteenth century, this population intermingled with indigenous Khoe-San peoples, who taught them how to recognize the Rooibos bush, harvest its leaves, and ferment the tea. As coloured communities became established in the region, families commonly used wild Rooibos for household consumption and as a traditional medicine for a variety of ailments, including indigestion and influenza.

Local informants also discussed the central role that coloured farmers played in terms of developing varieties suitable for commercial cultivation during the early twentieth century. While their input helped to launch the Rooibos industry, the collaboration between white and coloured interests ended after the midcentury inception of apartheid, when a state control board assumed control over the industry and barred coloured producers from participation. During the decades of apartheid, some local elders stated that coloured farmers continued to cultivate Rooibos in small quantities for household consumption and informal sale. In the early 1990s, the incoming postapartheid government converted the control board into a public firm and removed racial regulations. While white farmers sought to decentralize the industry by instituting their own processing firms, coloured farmers instituted two producer organizations in different areas of the Cederberg. After securing organic certification in the late 1990s, these two groups began to informally access Fairtrade buyers in the early 2000s.

Despite these changes, the Rooibos industry has remained heavily centralized, and white-owned estates have continued to maintain their dominant position in markets. Not only must all Rooibos flow through a few large processors with pasteurization capacity, but racial disparities in land tenure have precluded coloured farmers from deepening their presence in markets. A recent survey found that 93 percent of Rooibos derived from white-owned estates, with the largest averaging 600 tons per year. In contrast, nearly all coloured farmers rented small plots of land in marginal areas (Kruger and Associates 2010). Although this industry study defined farmers who produce less than 10 tons of Rooibos per year as small scale, nearly 60 percent of those involved in our research were cultivating less than 2 tons per year, with only 9 percent growing more than 7 tons.

In addition to critical land shortages, the sensitivity of Rooibos bushes to rainfall differentially affects small-scale farmers, who predominantly reside in the arid interior. In contrast to estate farmers, this group is more vulnerable to Cederberg droughts and lacks the financial reserves to stockpile tea produced during wet years for sale in dry years, when pricing rises. While these barriers have precluded small-scale farmers from expanding commercial production, they have established a reputation for producing high-quality tea. According to industry informants, tea produced in the arid interior has a more intense flavor because of the slower rate of growth. Indeed, Rooibos continues to grow wild in lands where coloured farmers operate, and communities have begun to harvest small quantities of wild tea to meet niche demand.

Figure 1 displays a map of the Rooibos value chain. The traditional chain to the left has continued to capture most sales, but industry diversification is evident in the rise of estates with processing and distribution capacity as well as in the entry of small farmer organizations into markets. Organic tea flows through multiple channels to reach domestic and international retailers. According to industry informants, organic certification is increasingly viewed as a requisite for market entry and no longer guarantees premium pricing. In contrast, Fairtrade tea provides producers with access to minimum pricing guarantees and social premiums for development. However, unlike the standards for other Fairtrade commodities such as coffee, Rooibos standards have been instituted for estates as well as for small-scale farmers. Thus, in the Fairtrade context, certified estates tend to sell tea through processors that maintain multiple sustainability certifications, while small farmer organizations sell directly to international Fairtrade buyers who operate as small exporters.

FIGURE 1.
The Rooibos Value Chain
FIGURE 1.
The Rooibos Value Chain

In the following subsections, we discuss five initiatives that sought to advance sustainability objectives within the Rooibos industry in the late 2000s. These included (1) a Fairtrade packaging scheme designed to add value to the tea produced by two small farmer cooperatives; (2) a CSR project implemented with coloured farmers in a nontraditional Rooibos growing area; (3) a research initiative to develop organic Rooibos seedlings; (4) a biodiversity campaign that planned to streamline certification management via the formation of an industry label; and (5) a training program that introduced a network of small-scale farmer leaders to the industry. Drawing largely from interviews with a range of informants, we describe the power dynamics shaping engagement and outcomes. The level of producer involvement varied widely, yet even when farmers were engaged we found that several barriers reinforced power imbalances.

The Fairtrade Initiative

The Fair Packers scheme initially was hailed as an innovative product-upgrading effort that would enable small-scale farmers to directly export packaged tea to certified markets. Participants comprised the members of two cooperatives that were supplying Fairtrade markets with organic tea in the early 2000s, well before Fairtrade International instituted formal standards for Rooibos tea. In 2005, these groups entered into an agreement with a white contract packager to institute Fair Packers under a one-third ownership scheme. The initiative followed a business rather than development model, with the participating groups receiving neither financial nor technical support. When Fair Packers was instituted, Rooibos markets were entering into a glut due to record harvests. Difficulties grew when Fairtrade International formalized its Rooibos standards in 2008, permitting estates to compete with small-scale farmers in Fairtrade exchanges. According to an industry informant, this move led to an imbalance in Fairtrade supply and demand as estates offered large quantities of certified tea. These events proved disastrous for the larger cooperative, which had gone into considerable debt to meet its share of the start-up costs.

In 2009 the Fair Packers arrangement collapsed. With assistance from an environmental organization that was involved in Fairtrade development, the smaller of the two cooperatives extracted itself from the scheme and maintained its ties to Fairtrade buyers. In contrast, the larger group received less consistent support and faced grave challenges. This cooperative was located in a remote region of the Cederberg, where members resided at distance from one another across rugged terrain. Moreover, cooperative staff lacked the capacity required to manage expanded operations. Not only was initial Fairtrade certification handled by an external expert, but membership more than doubled between 2001 and 2005 in anticipation of Fairtrade certification. While staff members possessed greater knowledge of organic standards, these had become increasingly complex to manage increasing shortcomings in technical capacity.

Both the large cooperative and the Fair Packers firm underwent decertification in late 2009. Buying out small farmer shares, the white packager reconstituted the firm without certifications and accessed a different set of buyers. Meanwhile, the large cooperative continued to flounder. Farming families struggled to survive without Rooibos income as the cooperative's unsold tea languished in the shed of a large processing firm. One Fairtrade respondent ironically referred to this tea as “toxic” when discussing the chaos surrounding decertification. In an effort to garner income, some members left the troubled cooperative and formed a new producer organization in 2010. This smaller group quickly moved to secure Fairtrade and organic certifications and slowly rebuilt local ties to Fairtrade buyers who wished to support the community. Meanwhile, the larger cooperative entered into legal disputes and ultimately was liquidated in early 2011.

The Community Tea Initiative

In 2006, a processing firm began working with a group of predominantly small-scale coloured farmers located in the southern reaches of the fynbos floral kingdom. While the firm framed its engagement in terms of community development and more broadly expressed its commitment to social sustainability, initiative emphasis was on commercial sustainability, as the primary goal was to develop an alternate production region that would ensure a steady supply of tea during Cederberg droughts. Having secured a sustainable development grant from a multinational foundation, the firm provided the members of a producer organization with initial agricultural training, enabling them to begin Rooibos testing. The farmers found that Rooibos grew robustly in the wetter southern climate, although bushes were short lived and fields required transplanting at three times the traditional rate. By 2010 the farmers involved in this project were selling their entire Rooibos crop to the firm, which processed and sold it to a luxury supermarket chain. In turn, this retailer marketed its commitment to social responsibility by selling the tea for minimal profit in its South African stores.

The members of this producer organization were less impoverished than the Cederberg population. Not only did most own rather than rent their land because of recent land reforms, but a number of farmers employed laborers. While most people in this area were small farmers, a few were growing large quantities of Rooibos along with other herbal products. For example, one small estate was producing 30 tons of Rooibos per year in addition to a variety of other herbal goods. Yet even these farmers were forced to rely upon other sources of income to maintain their operations, and many wished to add value to their Rooibos tea via organic certification. In contrast, interest in Fairtrade was limited. Some felt that Fairtrade did not adequately meet the needs of an emerging farmer population, as it maintained separate standards for small farmers and hired-labor estates. Those with larger farms were encouraged to certify under the hired-labor designation, but these producers had significantly fewer resources than white-owned estates and felt that such a move would not provide them with the support needed to grow their farms.

This CSR initiative helped a group of coloured farmers enter into a new commodity business by capitalizing on growing national demand for ethically produced goods. In addition to providing producers with initial Rooibos training, the processor covered their transportation and processing fees and promised to help the group locate funding to build a facility for first-stage processing. However, these services represented a temporary form of assistance, and many farmers were concerned about the long-term viability of continuing Rooibos production. Moreover, the farmers remained entirely dependent upon the processing firm for market access. Not only was the group's potential for sales limited by its distance from the Cederberg, but farmers lacked knowledge in which to base business decisions and expressed an urgent need for market training.

The Organic Seedling Initiative

As the umbrella networking body for the Rooibos tea industry, the South African Rooibos Council began funding organic seedling research in the 2000s to meet a critical barrier to organic production. With Rooibos bushes lasting no more than 10 years in their traditional growing zone, seedlings must be transplanted on a regular basis. Because of a lack of organic varieties, farmers have been transplanting conventional seedlings into their organic fields, and while certifiers have temporarily allowed this practice, industry respondents stated that the institutionalization of standards has made the seedling issue increasingly salient. To address this concern, the Rooibos Council hired a qualified researcher who brought international scientists into the project. By 2010, this group had failed to develop viable organic seedlings, and the Rooibos Council noted that it lacked the resources to continue funding such an expensive initiative.

Meanwhile, both estates and small-scale Rooibos farmers were frustrated with the expert-driven nature of the project and had begun to conduct their own separate tests.2 Although small-scale farmers possessed significantly fewer resources, this group felt they had critical knowledge to contribute, as they resided at the geographic point of origin for Rooibos tea, regularly encountered and studied wild Rooibos, and possessed intimate knowledge of this crop that in part derived from oral histories regarding the initial development of agricultural varieties. With support from an environmental organization, one small farmer cooperative was investing in seedling studies to “capture local knowledge” and “build leadership.” Some members of the decertified cooperative were informally running their own tests with no resources or support. These producers wanted to work with the seedling scientists, though they felt that testing should occur in in their communities and with their direct involvement.

The Rooibos Council was open to farmer participation but expressed uncertainty about how to proceed with a multistakeholder effort. In addition to the race- and class-based divisions separating estate and small-scale farmers, the differential knowledge of farmers and experts gave rise to language barriers. When the Rooibos Council attempted to connect farmers to seedling scientists during its 2010 general meeting, the technical language used in the scientific presentations stymied the potential for productive discussion. Not only did the session end with rancorous questioning from white farmers, but there was no opportunity for stakeholders to discuss the seedling issue in smaller groups. The open-forum format effectively silenced the few coloured producers in attendance. While small-scale farmer leaders had arrived at the meeting with a number of ideas that they wished to share, they felt intimidated by the scientific language of the presentations as well as by the acrimonious discussion that ensued.

The Biodiversity Initiative

The Right Rooibos campaign grew out of a biodiversity initiative that began in 2006 in response to the negative impact of expanded Rooibos cultivation on rare regional flora. At that time, the Rooibos Council worked with environmental organizations to develop an environmental management plan and to introduce a set of guidelines for farmers. As efforts grew, the initiative worked with industry stakeholders to integrate market considerations with guidelines for biodiversity protection. In 2008, the Rooibos Council launched Right Rooibos as a market-based initiative and sought to integrate broader stakeholders into the project in order to build support. As part of this process, the campaign promoted a set of sustainability standards designed to capture key social, economic, and environmental protocols, then produced a handbook for implementing these standards (Pretorius, Harley, and Ryser 2011).

Recognizing that industries cannot change practices or behaviors without retaining some control over the value chain, the campaign sought to strengthen the position of the Rooibos industry in markets by instituting an integrated management system that could adapt to growing demand for sustainably produced goods. With a social goal of extending market prospects for marginal groups, it sought to reduce certification costs by promoting an industry label that would be capable of capturing multiple certifications in a single auditing stream. For this to work, the label had to exceed the requirements of international standards such as Fairtrade. To offset the difficulties involved in meeting a stringent industry label, the campaign also worked on instituting a Rooibos extension system that would deliver training and support to producers. It was hoped that this extension system would provide a unified framework to (1) ensure environmentally sound agricultural practices; (2) support less advantaged farmers; and (3) develop commercially sustainable practices.

Despite the potential of an industry label, Right Rooibos suffered from a lack of resources and failed to secure broad-based alignment. Some firms were wary of any Rooibos Council effort to streamline the industry, as they felt that this could lead to a recentralization of power. During a Right Rooibos event, white estate farmers stated that they appreciated the possibility of single audits and reduced costs but also noted the challenges involved in meeting existing standards and expressed concerns regarding the stringency of the proposed label. In 2011, the campaign halted its efforts to institute an industry label. However, in addition to retaining its focus on extension services, Right Rooibos has continued to promote alignment with various sustainability certifications. Noting that commercial sustainability is dependent upon social and environmental responsibility, the project manager stated that certifications are merely a means to an end, as “the ultimate goal is for farmers to implement sustainability standards, not because a label requires it, but because this makes good business sense.”

The Farmer Leadership Initiative

In 2010, a South African training services provider responded to the challenges facing coloured Rooibos farmers by instituting a shared leadership training program.3 As this predominantly small-scale population lacked a cohesive leadership network because of geographic distances and turmoil wrought by the failure of the Fair Packers initiative, this initiative involved forming a network of community-based farmer leaders, then training this group in sustainability standards, management, and leadership. The leadership project established an equitable framework for engagement by soliciting training interests and holding democratic elections for farmer leaders in the participating communities. It also ensured gender inclusivity by asking each area to elect both a male and a female farmer leader. As a result, women constituted nearly half of the leadership network, which subsequently participated in a series of multiday training sessions and networking events. The program concluded with information exchanges between farmers, farmer leaders, and professional actors interested in Rooibos sustainability.

Over the course of the project, industry and organizational stakeholders facilitated training sessions, and many in the industry expressed an interest in building alliances with coloured Rooibos producers. A major processing firm provided space for the leadership workshops, arguing that emerging farmers represented “entrepreneurs” who “cannot grow their businesses if they do not make direct connections with actors at multiple levels in the value chain.” The processing firm involved in the CSR project likewise opened its doors to the leadership team via a tour of its facility and a meeting with its lead operative. Fairtrade and Right Rooibos actors provided the leaders with training, and the Rooibos Council worked with them to ensure an enabling environment within its umbrella network. As a result of this engagement, in early 2011 one of the leaders was elected to the Rooibos Council's governing board, and another was selected as his deputy.

Despite these promising outcomes, the program experienced several limitations that stymied the ability of the leadership network to expand upon project efforts. First, the farmer leaders lacked access to financial and material resources, and the project could not resolve these structural disparities. As nearly all of the leaders lacked access to modern telecommunications infrastructure, it was unclear whether the network could be maintained once the project ended. Second, training was purposively limited to predominantly small-scale emerging farmers in order to prioritize their concerns. This strategy supported a marginal population during a period of production and market turbulence, but as a result the leaders had little opportunity to build connections with white estate farmers who were experiencing similar market challenges. After listening to the concerns of white commercial farmers at Rooibos events, some of the farmer leaders expressed a desire to collaborate with this group, but they lacked the material resources to pursue such an agenda.

The five initiatives discussed in this section sought to either benefit from or improve access to sustainability standards and certifications. Addressing the question of sustainability in different ways, these efforts engaged multiple development approaches, including third-sector regulation, CSR, and shared leadership. Yet each initiative experienced significant problems, and none were able to demonstrate sustainable outcomes despite considerable resource and time investments. In the following section, we analyze the structural and relational barriers impeding Rooibos activities, clarifying common challenges to market-based sustainability. We then explore broader potentials, providing suggestions for policy and practice.

THE PROMISE AND PERILS OF MARKET-BASED SUSTAINABILITY

As neoliberal trading practices have shifted the balance of power from producers to buyers, value addition has become an important tool for Southern groups seeking to expand their presence in world markets (Gibbon and Ponte 2005). Because of growing demand for goods that meet socially and environmentally responsible standards, upgrading increasingly involves entry into certified markets. While many of these efforts claim to support the interests of marginal groups, scholars have highlighted the risks involved in product upgrading (Ponte and Ewert 2009) as well as the difficulties involved in linking markets to conservation agendas (McEwan, Hughes, and Bek 2014). As much of the discourse has focused on product upgrading, Talbot (2002) has argued in favor of studying broader upgrading actions, such as efforts to change policies and organizational environments. Yet scholars and professionals have tended to narrowly focus on specific certifications and practices, limiting understanding and hindering the development of more holistic approaches.

Not only does the Rooibos case study substantiate the perils of market-based sustainability, but the breadth of research findings demonstrates the challenges involved in achieving more systemic transformations. The first half of this section shows how structural and relational barriers mutually reinforced a culture of risk and dependency across a range of initiatives. Yet while these barriers hindered the development of more equitable arrangements the influence of social standards in Rooibos demonstrates the promise of market-based sustainability. The second half of this section shares examples of good practice. As part of our discussion, we suggest the potential role that social standards may play in terms of diffusing power and risk.

Structural and Relational Barriers

Numerous research participants expressed a desire to transform the Rooibos industry from a model of racial exclusion to one of interracial inclusion. Yet progress was stymied by complex barriers that served to mutually reinforce racial disparities. These broadly included (1) inequitable access to land and resources; (2) significant gaps in training, in part due to a failure to articulate B-BBEE in the small farmer context; and (3) relational challenges deriving from decades of racial conditioning and reinforced by top-down systems of management.

First, small-scale farmers experienced severe land shortages. In the region experiencing cooperative turmoil, an industry informant stated that hundreds of farmers were working small plots of land that in total would make up two average-sized estates. Not only was most of the Cederberg interior unsuitable for agriculture, but much of the land was reserved for wilderness conservation. In areas where arable tracts were more plentiful, land generally was owned by whites, who, according to some informants, refused to sell to coloured farmers. The broader literature corroborates these disparities. In 1994, about 83 percent of South Africa's commercial farmland was white owned, and by 2007 only 5 percent of this land had been transferred to previously disadvantaged populations (Chikulo 2015). During apartheid, church missions generally controlled access to plots of arable land in coloured rural areas, and reform in these areas has been stymied by the fact that there is not enough land to support equitable private ownership (Ntsebeza 2005). While the coloured farmers involved in the CSR campaign had successfully achieved land reforms, arable land was more plentiful in their southern region. In contrast, most small-scale Rooibos producers have continued to rely upon a system of nominal rents to secure access to Cederberg plots; and the stark reality is that there is not enough land to meet all of their needs.

Second, our research uncovered significant gaps in technical training and support that partly derived from a failure to articulate economic empowerment in the context of small-scale farmers. The postapartheid state has instituted B-BBEE codes to promote the entry of previously disadvantaged populations into positions of management and ownership, and it largely supports this entry by stipulating access to technical training (DTI 2009). In South Africa, Fairtrade certifiers have sought to address racial disparities on estates by aligning their efforts with those of the postapartheid state (Keahey 2015). In products such as wine, the Fairtrade-B-BBEE alliance has provided estates with an opportunity to address the extreme abuses endured by farmworkers under apartheid (Linton 2012). Yet strategies for implementing B-BBEE in the small farmer context have remained underdeveloped. Whereas Fairtrade estates are audited to ensure that training occurs, no such system has been put into place for small farmer organizations, where both members and managerial staff struggle to obtain access to market and managerial training. Not only did the lack of technical support hinder the ability of small-scale farmers to manage access to certified markets, but the entry of white-owned Rooibos estates into Fairtrade exchanges helped fuel a crisis that led to the demise of a large producer organization.

Third, we found that decades of racial conditioning hindered the potential for multistakeholder collaboration. Nandy (1997) has used the term colonization of the mind (p. 168) to clarify the psychological consequences of colonialism. Such forms of racial conditioning expanded under apartheid, when the South African state codified white supremacy via a series of legal maneuvers that placed white people in positions of authority and privileged European sources of knowledge (Keahey 2016). In Rooibos, we found that “experts” generally were white and “beneficiaries” were coloured. During interviews, some small-scale farmers expressed a sense of insecurity about communicating with white actors, with whom they usually had little contact. At public meetings, white stakeholders were assertive and readily assumed positions of authority, whereas coloured stakeholders remained quiet and deferential. Finally, the top-down nature of engagement reinforced these racial imbalances. Event facilitators rarely solicited the input of coloured stakeholders, and most of the sustainability initiatives were led by white actors. Although some efforts were made to address these power dimensions, opportunities for interracial connection were stymied by geographic distances and resource shortages.

As a consequence of these complex barriers, the five initiatives exacerbated risk and dependency. First, neither the Fairtrade nor CSR actions ensured producer access to market training. In the case of Fairtrade, this lack of support exposed a marginal population to additional financial hardship. Second, methods for connecting scientists with farmers have been available for decades (Pretty 1995). Yet there was no attempt to secure producer involvement with organic seedling research. Not only did the lack of interest in farmer knowledge disenfranchise this population, but the failure to develop seedlings heightened uncertainty regarding the future of organic production. Third, while the biodiversity campaign promised reduced certification costs, the Right Rooibos label was rejected because of a perceived risk of centralized control, leaving marginal groups particularly vulnerable to fluctuating market demands. Finally, the shared leadership program made strides in addressing relational barriers but failed to resolve the resource shortages that precluded marginal groups from managing their own affairs. Despite these challenges, we found examples of good practice that offer insight into the policies needed to transcend ideological and material differences.

Potential for Growth

We uncovered three examples of good practice that suggest the ongoing potential of market-based sustainability. These were (1) shared leadership; (2) long-term commitment; and (3) systemic upgrading. First, the shared leadership program addressed barriers in stakeholder knowledge and relations via participatory training and networking. Not only did the training program provide farmer leaders with access to technical knowledge, but it addressed local power imbalances by opening forums for multidirectional learning to occur. Second, some Fairtrade buyers remained committed to small farmers after the entry of estates into Fairtrade exchanges. These buyers supported two small farmer cooperatives during a time of market turmoil, helping to ensure their viability. As expressed in Fairtrade's Charter of Principles (WFTO and FTI 2009) long-term partnerships are critical for marginal groups who require some measure of market stability. Third, the biodiversity campaign developed an innovative framework for industry upgrading. While this effort failed to advance the Right Rooibos label, it offered critical insight into the systemic investments needed to realize market-based sustainability, including the dual need for reduced certification costs and responsive extension systems.

Despite the challenges of navigating sustainability standards and certifications, most small-scale farmers continued to desire access to these markets. This was because sustainable trade systems provided small-scale Rooibos producers with some measure of competitive advantage. This group was unable to produce the quantity of tea required to fare well in conventional markets, but they could supply organic tea produced under fair conditions at the point of origin for Rooibos. In this way certified cooperatives were uniquely positioned to meet sustainability criteria. While buyer interest in these qualities is reflective of broader postcolonial narratives of sustainability (Besky 2014), it is important to note that, in Rooibos, these narratives were actively employed by small farmer cooperatives seeking to offset critical land and resource shortages. In contrast to white industry respondents, who typically defined the value of small farmer tea in terms of flavor, small-scale farmers repeatedly invoked the language of pristine nature and cultural heritage.

Markets are unlikely to realize environmentally sustainable and socially just outcomes without fundamentally transforming the terms of engagement. Yet social standards are providing small-scale farmers with a platform to negotiate better terms. In particular, the involvement of global civil society in markets is generating opportunities for developing ideologically diverse coalitions (Del Felice 2012). Alternative commodity networks give rise to multiple centers of power by mobilizing information and resources, disrupting the vertical power of conventional value chain governance. While the more diffuse nature of power in networks theoretically supports stakeholder involvement, in practice decision making is by no means immune from elite cooptation (Lund and Saito-Jensen 2013). Not only do dominant groups possess greater authority, but horizontal imbalances play a central role in maintaining unequal arrangements in local arenas (Phillips 2014). Thus network actors are “constrained and empowered by the geographies and contexts within which governing occurs” (Griffin 2012:215).

If these challenges are to be effectively addressed, more inclusive policies and practices must be developed. According to VanderHoff Boersma (2009), development programs often state an interest in supporting marginal interests without taking their knowledge and concerns seriously. The Rooibos study found a similar gap between intension and practice. This gap fueled the failure of multiple Rooibos sustainability initiatives, generating uncertainty regarding the broader potential of market-based sustainability. Yet small-scale Rooibos farmers maintained an interest in sustainability standards and certifications and expressed a desire for further collaboration. With an intimate understanding of their constraints, this population stressed the importance of reducing costs, extending services, and ensuring stakeholder participation through the formation of shared leadership networks that support the entry of marginal groups into commodity planning and governance.

CONCLUSION

This article has contributed to the development discourse in three key ways. First, previous studies have examined the question of market-based sustainability within the context of specific certifications and practices. In contrast, we clarify common challenges and broader potentials by capturing a range of initiatives as they occurred within the Rooibos industry at one point in time. Second, our research findings demonstrate how complex barriers mutually reinforce inequitable terms of engagement. Employing the commodity network approach (Raynolds 2002, 2009), we offer a more complete assessment of the power dynamics shaping Rooibos engagement, with particular focus on structural and relational barriers. Third, we provide insight into the types of policies needed to improve sustainability outcomes, both by capturing historical, social, and environmental influences and by illustrating examples of good practice.

As we have discussed, the Rooibos industry operates within inequitable terrain that has been shaped by the trajectory of colonial settlement and apartheid-era governance as well as by neoliberal transformations that have privileged the role of buyers in value chains. In response to growing demand for goods produced according to socially and environmentally responsible standards, Rooibos actors sought to improve production and trade practices by investing in a range of market, research, and training initiatives. With some exceptions, these efforts were uncoordinated and maintained top-down systems of planning and management, resulting in the subordination of marginal groups to elite interests. Moreover, none of the initiatives secured sustainable outcomes. Despite these challenges, we found that sustainability standards provided small-scale farmers with a critical platform to pursue more equitable arrangements. In our view, this platform may be strengthened by instituting policies that facilitate the shift from vertical to relational governance. To diffuse power and risk, professionals should focus on reducing certification costs, extending support services, and ensuring the active inclusion of stakeholders in planning and governance. These tasks will not be easy to realize, but they are vital to the future of market-based sustainability.

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NOTES

NOTES
This research was supported by HortCRSP grant 09-002945-10. Co-led by the Center for Fair & Alternative Trade (CFAT) and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), the HortCRSP project collaborated with a regional training provider and small-scale Rooibos farmers to institute the shared leadership initiative discussed in this article.
1.
The term coloured refers to South Africa's indigenous and mixed-race people, who represent the majority population of South Africa's Western Cape Province where Rooibos production occurs. This article maintains the South African spelling to ensure historicity.
2.
One estate farmer claimed that he had achieved preliminary successes with his organic seedlings, though more work needed to be done. While he had not been asked to participate in the scientific research project, this respondent was unwilling to share any information regarding his experiments, as he felt that having the sole ability to produce organic seedlings would provide him with a competitive market edge.
3.
This study was funded by the same source as the shared leadership initiative. As part of the research process, the lead author was embedded within the leadership network as a participant observer and the leaders were active research participants during community-based fieldwork. The analysis provided in this article derives solely from our interpretation of the findings.