Monday, April 15, 2013

Will Having Unified Organic Labeling Make Africa's Agriculture More Profitable?

The world’s leading nations are profiting from myriads of trade protectionism and marketing communication initiatives that dispose agricultural and agro-industrial produce to profitable returns. Is the African continent ready to learn or at least adapt some of such initiatives with potentials for positively impacting the socio-economic circumstances of its people?

For some time now, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Economy (DREA) of the African Union Commission has identified and has been holding consultations across the continent over one of those protectionist initiatives - Geographic Indications (GIs) which if well-articulated and exploited, would offer some elixir to the continent’s theming resource poor agricultural populace are largely peasant farmers.

Geographical Indications (GI)are signs or names conferred on products emanating from specific geographic regions or origins - e.g. a town, region, or country certifying or giving assurance that the products possess characteristics or have reputation of possessing qualities, made in consonance with the traditional skills peculiar to the geographic areas.

The DREA, African Union and the Legal experts - resource persons also explain Geographic Indications (GIs) as signs that attest that goods emanate from a geographical area and do possess characteristics, reputation or qualities that are specific to geographic regions.

GIs are aimed at conferring proprietary rights to communities that produce or add value to produce or products that are peculiar to their terrains. Much like trademarks and patents over industrial goods or technologies, GIs intend to win ownership rights for communities over their ancestral or traditional produce, skills, products and technologies that have been associated with their geographical regions.
Geographic Indications become necessary where over time, a product made in a specific place earn a unique reputation - often due to special characteristics present in the place: its people, its climate and its landscape.

Since the turn of the century, futuristic nations have been employing trade names and trademarks for identifying food products associated with particular regions, employing laws to forestall false claims or passing off, generally protecting against suggestions that a product has a certain origin, quality or association when indeed they do not. Willy-nilly, such curtailment of competitive freedoms does facilitate monopolistic employment of geographical indication which yield good dividend and consumer or producer protection.

The French are behind appellation d'originecontrôlée (AOC - Apellation of Origin), one of the first GI systems. The government issued stamps, which represented official endorsement or certification of the standard and origin of the product of the consumer. Many French wines and Gruyère cheese (from Switzerland) have such appellations.

Similarly, the European Commission has three schemes: 
 PDO - (protected designation of origin), 
PGI - (protected geographical indication) and 
TSG - (traditional speciality guaranteed) which promote and protect names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs.

Through the schemes, the European Commission encourages diverse agricultural production, protection of product names from misuse and imitation and help consumers by giving them information concerning the specific character of the products.

According to the European Commission: 
PDO - covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how.
PGI - covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.
TSG - highlights traditional character, either in the composition or means of production

Should Africa get its acts together, the continent with untold agricultural resources and processing technologies is eminently positioned to benefit from conferring  Geographic Indications on some agro-produce that are home to its peculiar endowments of soil and climatic conditions.

Commencing with a thorough grasps of GIs and implications for agro- industrial development in the continent, the DREA has strategized sub-regional enlightenment with conferences held in Abuja, Nigeria and Johannesburg, South Africa. The consultations which started two years ago, often involves academicians, legal, agro and allied experts, dissecting the issues and strategizing initiatives that would enable optimal realizations from the enormous products that deserve GI in the African continent.

Early March, it was the turn of the South African Development Community (SADC), the  consultation on Geographic Indications held at the Pan African Parliament, Midrand, Johannesburg,  in the South African rich Gauteng region. In attendance were participants from the sub- region viz Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and of course the host nation, South Africa. There were also on hand participants from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya as resource persons or carefully selected to foster regional cross referencing. They were specialists in agriculture, organic agriculture, law, the media and government.     

There are enormous potentials in Geographic Indications to positively impact the agro industrial economies of beleaguered African nations if well exploited. GIs would enable the development of several farming communities as recognition and protection on the markets of the names of these products would encourage the community of producers to invest in maintaining the specific qualities of the product on which the reputation is built. After developing the technologies of production, there can be wholesome development of markets, employing tools of marketing communication to develop several brands while promoting the reputation of the products

Geographical Indications would also facilitate the structuring of the supply chains around products which have won such renown, translating to much-needed economic enhancement for African farmers and agro-allied industries.

The potentials are enormous, a product having won renown can be so developed that it would engage streams of idle hands, allow for out grower schemes as is visible in the Nigerian tobacco industry, have a chain of services as industrial production chains, logistics support at the local and international levels, national socio – economic, preservation of the natural resources on which the product is based, agro or eco-tourism, preservation of traditions and traditional technological know-how.

Lofty as the potentials in GIs are, much wouldn’t be realizable where nations states become slip-shod in galvanizing resources towards the attainment of GIs for products and services or backing them it with political and economic will, ensuring compliance with the process of developing the geographical indications (GI), adherenceto Codes of Practice, a philosophy of engaging and enlightening industry players and quality marketing initiatives.

Expectedly, the relatively advanced nations of the globe are reaping fortunes through Geographic Indications. Through strategic protectionism, engagement of marketing communication tools and positioning in the minds of consumers, European farmers are making fortunes from the likes of Parma ham, Roquefort Cheese, Scotch whiskeys. Americanpomologists and agronomists have been reaping fortunes from Florida oranges and Idaho potatoes respectively. In the food and drinks sector there are fruits and vegetables, wines, cheeses and cured meats: Champagne; Chedder and Tipperary turnips. Manufacturers in Europe, Asia and the US are profiting much from reputations built over the ages think Persian carpets, Murano glass, Toledo steel and Japanese electronics.

Importantly, through global, regional, bi- lateral or multi-lateral agreements, nations protect consumers, ensuring that they access the true qualities they demand, thus saving their farmers and industries from competition and keeping them in business and having their economies running.

There appears to be a ray of hope on the continent though. At least one nation seems to have woken to the realisation and that is Ethiopia. The well documented handling of Ethiopian coffee by the Ethiopian government may facilitate an appreciation of the viability of GIs and trademarks. An estimated 15 million people are directly or indirectly involved in the Ethiopian coffee industry with Ethiopian coffee alone generating about 60 per cent of the country’s total export earnings. The nation enjoys a strong reputation for its heritage coffees which command a very high retail price in the international market. Ethiopia is also the origin of some of the world’s finest coffees - Harrar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffee. These coffees have unique flavors and aroma that distinguish them from coffees of other countries and even other coffees within the country.

Despite the reputation of and Ethiopian heritage of the coffees, it is claimed that barely 5 to 10 per cent of the retail price actually goes back to the Ethiopian nation; most of the profit shared by distributors and middlemen in the marketing sector. Odd too, while a cup of these high priced coffees would sell for as much as US$ 4 in advanced nations, the poor Ethiopia grower earns less than a dollar a day.

These led to farmers abandoning coffee production due to low returns and engaged in growing more profitable narcotic plants. The Ethiopian government turned the tide by strategizing through intellectual property rights to differentiate their coffee in the market place and achieve higher returns. Through the Ethiopian Coffee Trademarking and Licensing Initiative, the Ethiopian Fine Coffee Stakeholder Committee comprising a consortium of comprising cooperatives, private exporters and the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) as well as other concerned government bodies committed the nation to protecting its commercial origin through registering trademarks, steps that avoid the complexities in GIs .

This granted the government of Ethiopia the legal right to exploit, license and use the trademarked names in relation to coffee goods to the exclusion of all other traders. Unlike a GI, a trademark registration does not require a specific coffee to be produced in a specific region or have a particular quality in connection with that region. Using trademark registrations, the government of Ethiopia then produce greater quantities of specialty coffees from all over the country.

Now, producers outside the Sidamo region could grow Sidamo coffee, without necessarily having the characteristics unique to the Sidamo region. The Stakeholder Committee opted for the trademark-based solution, with the Ethiopian government as the owner of these marks. This strategy gave the Ethiopian government greater and more effective control over the distribution of its product, which ultimately increases revenue by exporting more goods, enabling a rise in prices and benefits to farmers.

What need border the African continent is the reality that there is continuous erosion of resources owing to inability to maximize or optimize potentials. Undoubtedly, more can be gained from putting some indication on a vast range of produce of the continent and employing the tools of marketing communication to draw gains from these produce. To drive the point home, imagine what losses the economy of a State like Kenya would have incurred if it hadn't showcased and built its economy on tourism and conservation of wildlife?

Africa for now is lacking compelling laws that control or protect its resources that necessitate Geographic Indication. There is the painful reality of absence or abysmal cohesion of efforts to reverse the ill-tide in the interest of millions of challenged farmers across the continent. What is needed is a development of strategies to stem further erosion of the rich array of agricultural products, handicrafts, foodstuffs, traditions and knowledge passed on over generations that are domiciled in the continent

Good enough, the Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union  is taking great strides at raising a crop of stakeholders that hopefully would develop strategies for wining for the continent, grounds lost by inertia and uncoordinated approaches towards GIs for agricultural goods. - Niyi Egbe, This Day Live

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