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Reinten, E. and J.H. Coetzee. 2002. Commercialization of South African indigenous crops: Aspects of research and cultivation of products. p. 76–80. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Commercialization of South African Indigenous Crops: Aspects of Research and Cultivation of Products

Emmy Reinten and J.H. Coetzee


Commercial agriculture in South Africa has in the past mostly been focusing on existing traditional crops for their land use activities. The new generation rural farmers cannot commercially compete with traditional agriculture and have to investigate new and alternative crops to become competitive.

New crop development is needed to create opportunities for sustaining livelihoods, and to develop strong linkages between agriculture and the rest of the economy. According to Simbi and Aliber (2000), agricultural employment in South Africa’s commercial farming sector is declining. From 1988 to 1998, 140,000 regular jobs (20%) were shed, requiring new job developments. Aspects of commercialization including market information, entrepreneurial and business skills training, social awareness, access to finance, and environmental awareness need to be addressed to create sustainable agribusinesses.

Several international treaties have an influence on the commercialization of indigenous crops. However, legislation and regulations with regard to Indigenous Knowledge Systems are not yet in place in South Africa, making it difficult to work on indigenous plants. Furthermore the research and development of the commercialization process is lengthy and costly (Coetzee 2001; Niederwiesser et al. 1998; Wessels et al. 1998).

The large and rich biodiversity of the indigenous plants of South Africa offers a valuable source for investigation into new crops. Research funding for indigenous crops is a limiting factor in scientific evaluations and trials to commercialize new crops, but worthwhile results have been achieved by academic institutions with regard to basic taxonomic documentation and general botany. Research by the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa focusing on the commercialization of indigenous plant material has contributed to the establishment of alternative and new crops. Research has been conducted in the field of floriculture using fynbos [characteristic vegetation type in the Cape Floristic Region, and readily recognized by presence of large numbers of species and individuals of Proteaceae (Protea, Leucadendron, Leucospermum), Ericaceae, Rutaceae, and Restionaceae, while Poaceae, the true grasses, are rare] and bulbous plants (Ornithogalum, Lachenalia, Gladiolus, Crinum). Indigenous crops for tea purposes include rooibos (Aspalathus) and honeybush (Cyclopia). Medicinal plants include buchu (Agathosma), aloes (Aloe), and Hypoxis. Indigenous vegetables derived from Amaranthus spp., Cleome, Dovyalis, Plectranthus, and Vigna have also been extensively researched for commercialization purposes.

Although some of these plants are only useful to fill small niche markets, others have the potential to become new products for consumers, while others such as the rooibos and honeybush tea industries are expanding with a world market. Proteaceae flowers are already a definite component of the international flower trade.

To implement the research results in rural farming operations have proved to be difficult. In many cases these farmers are the legal owners of the original genetic material and must participate in benefit sharing. They have been using these products or derived-from products for centuries and should benefit in the transition from wild harvested plants into commercial crops.

By making technology available to rural farmers and communities is however only one part of the process of commercialization. Other aspects that are required include market information, entrepreneurial and business skills training, social awareness, environmental awareness, and access to finance. Together with cultivation technology these factors must be addressed to assist rural farmers in South Africa to enter the mainstream economy.


The biodiversity of the indigenous plants of South Africa offers a valuable source for investigation into new crops (Bond and Goldblatt 1984). Research funding for indigenous crops is a limiting factor in scientific evaluations and trials to commercialize new crops, but worthwhile results have been achieved by the Vegetable and Ornamental Plant Institute of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in South Africa.

Research by the ARC focusing on the commercialization of indigenous plant material, has contributed to the establishment of alternative and new crops. Research has been conducted in a number of fields as follows:

  1. Floricultural Uses. Many indigenous species have been used including selected fynbos species of the Proteaceae [Protea (130 species), Leucadendron (80 species), and Leucospermum (47 species)] with lesser emphasis on Serruria (55 species), Aulax (3 species), Mimetes (11 species), and Paranomus (18 species), while Orothamnus zeyheri (1 species) is studied for conservation purposes. Bulbous plants investigated for commercialization include selected species for hybridization, propagation, and cultivation purposes. Genera used in the past 20 years include Ornithogalum (60 species), Lachenalia (55 species), Amaryllis belladonna (1 species), Nerine (30 species), Cyrtanthus (50 species), Gladiolus (105 species), Lapeirousia (25 species), and Crinum (20 species).
  2. Medicinal Plants. These include rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) and honeybush (Cyclopia intermedia, C. genistoides). This research developed from the use by the Khoi-people of this traditional beverage, and its herbal benefit.
    Other medicinal plants include aloes (Aloe), Hypoxis, Bowiea, Siphonochilus, and Scilla, and essential oil plants buchu (Agathosma betulina and Agathosma crenulata).
  3. Indigenous Vegetables. These are derived from Amaranthus spp., Cleome, Plectranthus, and Vigna have also been extensively researched for commercialization purposes. The different culture groups were surveyed on their diet combinations to identify the indigenous crops used.

Ongoing agricultural research results in information is available for commercial and rural farmers in South Africa. In order to establish cost effectiveness and impact of research on the relevant industries, comprehensive socio-economic studies were compiled. According to Niederwieser et al. (1998) and Wessels et al. (1998) research results and growth in the floricultural industry are related. In the development of new agricultural crops, the relationship between research input and producer-product output needs to be taken into account (Coetzee et al. 2000). Agricultural employment is needed in South Africa (Simbi and Aliber 2000), and new crops offer potential jobs.


From field harvested products, the initial steps were to collect material for establishment by using seed and cuttings (Littlejohn 2001a). The Proteaceae used for commercial cut flowers are endemic to the Cape Floral Kingdom, an area of 90,000 km2 at the southernmost tip of Africa (Bond and Goldblatt 1984), and their characteristics contribute to the unique floricultural products (Littlejohn 2001b).

Initially selections were made, then a breeding program was initiated resulting in released cultivars, some protected by plant patent rights. From the first hand pollination, through the steps of evaluation till a new cultivar is released can take up to 10 years. A living genebank collection that needs to be maintained, supports the research and development (Littlejohn and De Kock 1997). The fynbos genebank currently maintains 1200 species, 800 hybrid and 120 cultivar accessions and is maintained at the Elsenburg experimental station (33° 50' 80" S, 18° 50' 10" E, 177 m above sea level) near Stellenbosch.

Cultivar Development and Patent Rights

Cultivar development aims to supply plant material which have an improved yield, better appearance, time of flowering complying with market demands, and an extended post-harvest life in comparison with natural species (Coetzee and Littlejohn 2001; Coetzee and Middelmann 1997). The commercialization of products with an existing or potential market required the postulation of a model for the handling of genetic material by the ARC. The process includes the following phases: (1) collection and improvement; (2) pilot evaluation; (3) PBR/Patents; (4) commercialization; (5) market links; and (6) trademark.

Hybrids protected by plant patent rights at present are 6 Protea, 3 Leucospermum, and 3 Leucadendron cultivars that have been developed by the ARC. This includes: Protea, ‘Red Rex’, ‘Clare’, ‘Madiba’, ‘Florindina’, ‘Sheila’, and ‘Carnival Too’; Leucospermum, ‘High Gold’, ‘Rigoletto’, and ‘Crown Orange’; and Leucadendron: ‘Disco Date’, ‘Rosette’, and ‘Jubilee Crown’.

Crop Science

New crops need information on cultivation practices, starting with the cost-effective propagation techniques such as the rooting of cuttings. As soon as plants are planted, information on crop characteristics such as flower initiation, the spacing between established plants in the field, the climatic time of establishment and general water needs (Van Zyl et al. 2000) and fertilizer requirements are required. Together with pruning trials to determine optimum flower yield as well as the shifting the flowering period by disbudding as was experimented on by Malan and Jacobs (1990) have been investigated. Tissue and soil sample standards for Proteaceae were also determined, different rootstocks and grafting methods were evaluated and supported with field trials.

Plant Pathology

Effective control of pests and diseases are researched. A fumigation technique (negative pressure) for export of flowers was developed (Wright and Coetzee 1992). Biocontrol methods were investigated and diseases have been identified and characterized (Wright 1995). Effects and control of Phytophthora cinnamomi, Colletotrichum, Fusarium, and Elsinoë are being determined (Swart et al. 1998; Swart and Crous 2001). As indigenous crops are cultivated in their natural environment, interesting problems arise after the commercialization (homogenous colonies) process.


Indigenous bulbs are part of the rich biodiversity of indigenous plants of South Africa and suitable for the ornamental floriculture industry. Research actions on indigenous bulbs include the upkeep of collections, their identification and evaluation of flowering potential. Actions carried out are hand-controlled pollination, with embryo rescue and tissue culture multiplication, together with pot plant trials for determining the nutrient requirements of especially Ornithogalum thyrsoides and O. dubium. (Blomerus 2001; Littlejohn and Blomerus 1997). Other indigenous bulbs researched include Babiana, Ixia, and Sparaxis.

This research has resulted in the release of cultivars of Ornithogalum: ‘Tipper’, ‘Oranjezicht’, ‘Namib Star’, ‘Namib Sun’, and ‘Namib Sunrise’. These have been patented in South Africa, while patent rights in the EU and US have been requested.

The genus Lachenalia (Hyacinthaceae) is extensively researched by ARC-Roodeplaat (Niederwiesser et al. 1998). The present cultivars released amount to 23. The genebank accessions for Lachenalia are 450 with 45 species and 300 with 80 species for Amaryllidaceae.

Breeding Research

Horticultural research (Coertse et al. 1992) for commercialization of bulbous plants involves breeding including cyto-taxonomic aspects, and the genetic variation determination. DNA marker technology has been adapted to support taxonomical and cytogenetical studies. The potential for inter-genus crosses was found to be limited due to incompatibilty between the genera. Incompatibility could not be overcome by application of embryo rescue techniques. The genus identified as one with the most potential was Cyrtanthus, although problems with regard to flower initiation and manipulation occurs (Slabbert 1997). It was found that different Lachenalia species have different basic chromosome numbers and in some cases the basic chromosome number varies within certain species. B-chromosomes were identified and described, and polyploidy is relatively common in Lachenalia (Hancke and Liebenberg 1998).

Production Methods

New production methods (Niederwiesser and Van Staden 1990); the method of storage of bulbs, temperature and treatment of bulbs, are being tested. Research on propagation by tissue culture and leaf cuttings, embryo rescue, manipulation of flowering times, and experiments to increase the yield and quality of bulbs (Roodbol and Niederwiesser 1998) continue. Mosaic virus in Ornithogalum (OMV) was identified and an antiserum produced for use in ELISA indexing. Slabbert and Niederwiesser (1999) studied the in vitro Lachenalia bulblet formation for commercial production—tissue culture propagation, bulb size distribution, marketable bulb size, and aspects of marketing channels are determined.


Two species have been commercialized for herbal teas. Honeybush tea (Cyclopia spp.) and rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis) have been transformed from a wild harvested crop to a commercial viable agribusiness. The crop science aspects and especially the sustainable harvest methods of these crops have been studied.

Estimates are that over 70% of the South African population make use of traditional remedies. Natural products and their derivatives represent more than 50% of all drugs in clinical use in the world (Kinghorn and Balandrin 1993). In South Africa a large part of the day-to-day medicine is still derived from plants and large volumes of plants or their extracts are sold in the informal and commercial sectors of the economy (Van Wyk et al. 1997). The role of Traditional Healers is huge and the conversion of indigenous knowledge into public knowledge needs to be taken account.

ARC research focuses at present on the collection for genebank maintenance and the determination of propagation methods for establishment (Coetzee et al. 1999). Aloe, Hypoxis, Bowiea, Siphonochilus, and Scilla are the most prominent species investigated.


The aim of investigating new indigenous vegetable crops is to address malnutrition, community development and to establish entrepreneurs. Indigenous edible seed and leafy vegetables are investigated for purposes of commercialization. Over 300 lines of cowpeas (Vigna) have been described and are maintained—their source of protein, iron, calcium, vitamin A, and amino acids are evaluated. Other crops include Amaranthus, Cleome, bambarra groundnuts, and pigeon peas. Plants are maintained in a genebank and new cultivation aspects studied, including pests and diseases (La Grange and Aveling 1998).

Root and tuber crops include Plectranthus esculentus and Solenostemon rotundifolius. Their nutritional value, and low-cost effective cultivation methodology are on trial in the different climatic regions of South Africa. Inter-cropping and organic cultivation methods are researched.


New crops offer the opportunity to create employment. In the floriculture sector, for many years the “crops” of wild harvesters have been proven to sustain employment. However, with rapid changes in market demand for improved ornamental plant material, this sector needs to be investigated for agribusiness development. Relevant developed technology is transferred to communities by means of workshops and on-farm consultations. Additional aspects of organic cultivation methods and effective propagation are under investigation.