Tea time in Mpophomeni

By Garth Johnstone

Long known for its gentle flavour and restorative properties, a fledgling business in Mpophomeni has its hopes pinned on commercialising bush tea (Athrixia phylicoides).

Sphamandla Mabaso, who started Emphare Organics three years ago, sees potential in the shrub to develop a range of tea products.

Athrixia phylicoides, or African bush tea, is described on the South African Biodiversity Institute website as being a shrub about one metre in height, with fine, linear leaves about 30x10mm – dark green and shiny above and grey-white and smooth below. It is found in areas throughout KwaZulu-Natal. The Bushmen used it to make tea, while today the plant is used to make hard brooms, and the Sotho and Venda people chew the leaves to ease sore throats and coughs.

Community garden

Sphamandla, or Spha as he is better known, was working for the Department of Social Development as an administrator when he decided to leave last year to help his grandfather with his community garden in Mpophomeni.

“It’s a small garden. I have taken over as he is starting to get on in years and we are extending,” said Spha.

“The garden is more than 20 years old. It has always been a garden for the benefit of the community. It’s a place where they can get fresh vegetables.

“There is not much land in the township where you can grow veggies. We do not own the land, there is an agreement with the municipality that we can use it to produce food,” he says.

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When we visited Spha recently, he was growing mielies, beans, pumpkins, potatoes, spinach, cabbages and onions. Fruit trees included guavas, peaches, plums and apricots, which are used to make jams and juice.

He is experimenting with growing bush tea in Mpophomeni, but notes that it grows better on slopes. Supply, however, will not be a problem as he can source it from nearby farmland owned by a friend. For sustainability, he will continue to grow his own plants.

His grandfather, Baba Ndlovu, who is a herbalist, farmer and accomplished welder, first alerted Spha to the plant’s potential. He is gradually transferring his knowledge to his grandson.

Baba Ndlovu and Spha enjoy a laugh together. Picture by Nikki Brighton

Spha says he has done a lot of experimenting with iced bush tea, but is still refining the product.

He has also produced tea bags and is conducting tastings. The product will still need to be certified and there is work to be done on the packaging and admin side.

As a farmer, Spha only grows organic food. He applies principles of crop rotation and group and companion planting.

Crops growing in the garden in Mpophomeni. Spha Mabaso left a government job to work on his farming and bush tea projects. Picture: Garth Johnstone

High up on the list of future plans is the establishment of a farm stall and he has already had plans drawn up with an architect friend.

Spha admits that the budget will be tight and they will look to use as much recycled wood or donated material as possible.

Naledi Majozi, who trained as a legal secretary and has done an internship with the SAPS, joined Spha recently and will provide admin and marketing know-how to help drive the bush tea project.

Naledi has some exciting ideas, which the pair are not yet ready to disclose, about a range of associated healthcare and skin products.

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Among their goals are registration (product and company), brand building and work on packaging and certification.

“We have had excellent feedback from locals and tourists who have tasted the tea. We need to work with other local businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs to develop our business opportunities together,” says Spha.

**Spha is looking for donations of material to help build the farm stall. On the wish list are timber and buildings supplies, water tanks and irrigation piping.

If you can help, contact him on 071 4540 323 or email sphamabaso@gmail.com.

Main picture, top: Entrepreneur and budding farmer Spha Mabaso with Naledi Majozi, who has joined him in his company, Emphare Organics.