What do farmers in your country produce that nobody else can? No matter where you live, an answer no doubt comes easily to mind. The famous products of specific regions, rooted in local environment and tradition, are an ancient form of ‘branding’ that is still practised everywhere.
In light of this, it is worth considering how much emphasis has been put on turning farms over to internationally standardised commodity crops, and how much less has been put on supporting the unique values and reputations established by generations of farmers.
Origin-linked products - inseparably tied to the place they are grown - are up for reconsideration in ACP countries. In particular, efforts have begun to establish internationally recognised, protected geographical indications (GIs) to bring special products to wider markets. Sub-Saharan Africa recently established its first three GIs (see Spore 168, Sweet success?), and more are appearing in the Caribbean, taking the lead from Jamaica’s world famous Blue Mountain coffee.
Unlike Fairtrade, organic, and other labels, GIs allow producers to set their own code of practice, based on the methods they have always followed. Traditional approaches thus become sources of value and distinction. Contrary to the large majority of voluntary standards, GIs are regulated by national laws, so public authorities fix and oversee the conditions under which a GI is conferred, maintained and protected against imitations and appropriation. Public authorities also oversee the framework that ensures quality control, again with various degrees of involvement and effectiveness depending on the legal system chosen to protect GIs at national level. And unlike patents or trademarks, GIs confer collective rights that belong to all farmers in an area who respect the product’s specifications, bringing equitable opportunity to whole communities. However, these collective rights demand an equally collective approach between producers and others in the value chain, in order to set up, govern and market GIs.
From parmesan to Penja pepper
The practice of registering GIs began in Europe, initially for wine, and today well over a thousand products are on the EU register. The system has been credited with keeping entire local industries alive, while contributing to huge markets for origin-linked favourites like parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano) cheese and champagne. With such shining examples - and millions of GI-attuned consumers - it is no wonder that Europe is inspiring ACP countries to revisit their own local specialties.
But to go from a good reputation to a protected, quality controlled and well-marketed GI product takes much effort - and especially cooperation. There is no single formula for identifying a good origin-linked product or candidate for GI, and no single actor who can create a new origin-linked brand. This is where traditional farming and processing techniques meet a complex body of knowledge on intellectual property rights, branding and marketing.
Some of this expertise was brought together for the first time at a 2009 ACP/EU workshop on GIs, organised in Montpellier, France by CTA, the French Agency for Development (AFD) and the French agricultural research for development centre, CIRAD. The great interest sparked by this conference led to the establishment of an online discussion forum by CTA and the Organisation for an International Geographical Indications Network (OriGIn), which currently has 226 members from 63 countries. The collaboration culminated in a Practical Manual on Geographical Indications for ACP Countries, to provide policymakers, producers and others in the region with a comprehensive guide to the economic, legal and operational intricacies of the GI approach.
So far, sub-Saharan Africa has three examples of GI implementation: Penja pepper (see Penja pepper gets GI protection) and Oku honey, both from Cameroon, and Ziama-Macenta coffee from Guinea. These are registered with the African Intellectual Property Organization (AIPO), which established a uniform system of protection for intellectual property in 1977 that has now proven suitable for GIs. It is very likely, however, that other products will be developed in the near future, as a number of partners have been supporting efforts around the continent. In a series of training workshops since May 2013, for example, CTA, FAO, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), AIPO, United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the West African regional farmers’ organisation, ROPPA, have been building the capacities of West and Central African countries in selecting potential products.
The promise of origin-linked products in the Caribbean is embodied in Blue Mountain coffee, a high value product from the mountains of eastern Jamaica. The country has followed this successful GI approach with other native products, from Jamaica rum to jerk spices. Other countries are also looking at how to move towards a GI approach; a regional WIPO/CTA training workshop in August 2013 helped with the identification process.
The Antigua Black pineapple seems like a sure bet: it has a distinctive look, a reputation as the ‘world’s sweetest pineapple’ and is so closely associated with the island that it tops Antigua and Barbuda’s national coat of arms. In a hotly contested global pineapple market dominated by mega-producers, the Antigua Black could gain new markets for the small island, especially as the fruit’s particular sweetness is dependent on the soil and relatively low rainfall. The country has been pursuing a GI branding strategy since 2010, but has not yet achieved the goal. Once a GI is secured, the true export potential will still depend on the island’s productive capacity, which currently falls short of even domestic demand.
The government of Grenada, meanwhile, is pursuing branding not just for products, but for the island itself as the ‘Spice Isle’. Grenadian nutmeg, in particular, was identified by WIPO among six products that could receive technical assistance towards GI designation. Grenada hopes that the fragrant spice will ultimately be recognised and protected on the European market.
“Within the region, the process of obtaining GI protection is relatively new,” says Barbadian intellectual property expert Wendy Hollingsworth, so conforming to guidelines from outside makes sense. “In developing a framework for GI protection, countries within the region will use guidelines already in existence, such as those of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the EU within the context of the CARIFORUM-EU EPA.” A clause in the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement) required CARIFORUM countries to establish a system of GI protection by the start of 2014, which would lead to negotiation for a fully fledged agreement between the regions.
While these are government-led efforts, Hollingsworth stresses that anyone can potentially start the process. “Even smaller producers can file a GI application,” she says. “Such groups will often require support from the public sector or from business support organisations. To date, not much interest has been shown by either large or small producers and the process is being driven by intellectual property offices or business support organisations.” But eventually, it is the producers and their associations who must make quality products a reality, organising themselves with a code of practice and oversight authority.
A changing geography
As more countries venture into GI development, there are, at least, plenty of examples to follow. In the meantime, it is important to remember that an origin-linked product does not necessarily need GI certification to find better markets. Unique, high quality products are everywhere, and there are many ways to preserve, protect and promote them (see box, Alternative marks).
“I am sure that every country has some potential for origin-linked products, but whether there is value in pursuing a GI is very much on a case-by-case basis,” says CTA’s Senior Programme Coordinator for Value Chain Development Vincent Fautrel. “Countries need to examine very carefully which product could potentially become eligible and the identification methodology developed by FAO is really useful in this sense. The bottom line is whether this approach is going to provide more revenue for the farmers.” Sometimes, farmers already know and serve a market they have fed for generations. Sometimes, bigger possibilities lie over the horizon. The first step is simply looking around and discovering, or re-discovering, what makes a place unique.