By Lauren van der Westhuizen

The aloe plant grows naturally across sub-Saharan Africa especially in arid countries like Madagascar, east Africa, and the horn of Africa. It is not harvested in commercial quantities outside of South Africa though, and even then, it is still a marginal crop.

However over the last 20 years, a small aloe industry has taken root in South Africa. There is growing interest in the commercial use of the aloe plant in South Africa as government and private agencies are waking up to its economic value.

According to Professor Ben-Erik van Wyk from the University of Johannesburg, and head of the Aloe Council of South Africa, the Aloe vera industry has an estimated turnover of more than US$110-billion. “This makes it arguably the most important of all medicinal plants,” says Professor van Wyk.

Aloe vera is one variant of aloe, a plant native to Africa, of which there are about 500 species. There is a recent development to establish Aloe vera plantations in southern African. It is still relatively small scale but is likely to increase rapidly, says Ben-Erik. Traditionally it was only Aloe ferox.

Says Ben-Erik: “The Aloe vera industry was developed in southern Texas by clever and hard-working Americans who perfected the art of marketing and distribution. The farming gradually shifted to cheaper production areas such Mexico and the Dominican Republic.”

“China and Korea are entering the market in a very big way, including the production of freeze-dried gel for cosmetic use. I am told that China has invested very heavily into the Aloe vera industry.”

“Locally, Aloe vera of America (Forever Living products) seem to be doing very well. This company has more than a million agents worldwide and a turnover exceeding US$2-billion. They have bought properties in South Africa (e.g. Blyderivier Resort is now a Forever Living resort).”

In South Africa the commercial species is the Cape aloe (Aloe ferox) that grows naturally from Swellendam in the west to southern KwaZulu-Natal in the east. The traditional harvesting area is the Albertinia-Mossel Bay region but there are also some commercial operations in the Eastern Cape. A few businesses have now planted plantations of Aloe Ferox.

At this stage, about 300 tons of aloe bitters (the crystals) is harvested each year in South Africa. A far larger volume of leaves are processed for the inner, non-bitter gel that has become the main product, used to make aloe health drinks. Most of the crystals are exported but most of gel is used locally.

Aloe lump (the bitters) is used as a purgative medicine but is also used as a food ingredient – in bitter tonics etc. The gel is used in beauty products and in health drinks.

South Africa’s biggest export markets are Germany, Italy and Japan. The rough value of the aloe industry in South Africa is about R60-million (US$6.5-million) in retail value, says Ben-Erik.

“The industry has a long history in South Africa and the bitters has been an export product since the 1760’s. There is a still a steady demand for the bitters. The gel drinks have better prospects in the local market but imported aloe drinks (Aloe vera based) are giving stiff completion,” says Ben-Erik.