What do Goan cashew feni, Mexican tequila, Swiss watches, Costa Rican coffee, French bordeaux and Scotch whisky have in common? A Geographical Indication, or GI, tag. GI is a platinum standard that is granted to unique geographical origin-products and regulated worldwide under the World Trade Organization Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. In recent years, GI tags have garnered interest from countries around the world as a potentially powerful marketing tool.
But designating products is just a first step. Taking full advantage of this valuable vehicle for projecting a country’s soft power and creating trade for niche products requires coordinated public policy actions by a range of government organisations.
With its rich cultural heritage, India should have long been at the forefront of the GI game (and IPR recognition and enforcement, in general). Our nation is a treasure trove of handicrafts, music, dance forms, textiles, flavours, and other unique products. The GI designation brings many benefits. It is a high-potential way to unlock the commercialisation of authentic products by setting quality standards and providing global legal protection for them. This speeds up exports and thus promotes economic growth. At the same time, the GI designation protects and promotes cultural heritage, enhances the reputation of the region where such products originate, and thereby boosts tourism.
The first product to receive GI recognition in India was Darjeeling tea in 2004, which has GI tags for its unique logo and name. Since then, 354 GIs have been registered in India on everything from spices to silk, with applications pending for 224 products more.
The Darjeeling tea experience highlights the need for GI protection in India. For years, more tea labelled as ‘Darjeeling tea’ was sold in the international market than was produced in its place of origin in Kalimpong district, West Bengal. Free riders around the world were misappropriating the distinctive reputation of this Indian tea. That changed after the Tea Board of India, in November 2004, engaged K & S Partners, a law firm, to handle the process of GI registration for Darjeeling tea, and succeeded in obtaining legal protection through the GI tag. Ever since, there has been a 43% increase in demand and a rise in price in 2019 to Rs. 3,500 from Rs. 1,500 per kg, with GI-recognised Darjeeling tea being in regular supply in markets.
Like Darjeeling tea, India has other natural gifts too, and in the last eight months, the central government seems to be making a turbo-charged effort to play catch-up and benefit from them. Better late than never. On 28 January 2019, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) inaugurated its first-ever GI store at Goa International Airport, Dabolim, jointly set up by the Airport Authority of India and the Cashew Export Promotional Council of India. Products for sale in the store include azulejos paintings, coconut carvings, Mankurad mangoes, Khola chillies, Taleigao brinjals, Korgutt (red kernel rice), Goan chorizo sausages, breadfruit and more, which have the potential for GI registration, but do not have it yet. With tourist footfalls increasing in Goa every year, the state is an ideal location for this welcome initiative.
Yet there is only one GI-registered product from Goa: Goan cashew feni, a local alcoholic beverage unique to the state, and only partly tagged. It has two varieties: one from the sap of the cashew apple, the other from coconut. Only the cashew feni, registered by the Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, has earned the status of a registered GI. Coconut feni has not earned such a status yet – despite its application for a GI tag. The rationale for this is that granting multiple GI tags for a variant of a product from the same region can undermine its uniqueness, creating confusion in the minds of consumers.
Goan cashew feni can serve as a test case for showing how India can take full advantage of the GI designation. The production of feni, often characterised as an unorganised and small scale sector, is an important employment generator. The bottlers of feni usually employ three people, or even 12, with 53% such units employing more than five.
There are other ways too to create a support structure for the promotion of feni. Such as:
- Catering colleges in Goa, the Restaurant and Bar Association, state government and Goa Cashew Feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, can collaborate to find creative ways to promote authentic Goan feni, taking it from pre-mixes to cocktails.
- Central government organisations, such as the DPIIT, can help promote Goan feni’s brand value by serving it at diplomatic and state banquets and foreign missions.
- The International Film Festival of India, held annually in Goa, is another occasion for the local government to promote the drink through the organising of ‘feni’ tours – like the wine tours in France and whisky tours in Scotland, which offer an ‘experience’ to savour and help build an aura around the brand. Tours can be paired with a ‘Feni Week’ and engage stakeholders in the event.
There are many models for feni to follow. Scotland now exports 90% of its most famous product, Scotch whisky, whose origin dates to the early 20th century. Export values and volumes have trended upwards over the last two decades, which is testimony to the brand’s enduring qualities and the halo of heritage it has created for itself. The growth of GI-tagged Scotch whisky remained resilient despite the negative fallout on trade felt throughout the UK after the announcement of Brexit in 2016. Its export value grew at an annual rate of 8.4% to £4.7 billion in 2018 from £4 billion in 2016. The export volume of Scotch whisky in 2016 was 1 billion 70-centilitre bottles, while in 2018, it was 1.3 billion 70-centilitre bottles.
Closer home, India risks once again ceding first-place status in Asia to China when it comes to spirits. China’s sorghum firewater, baijiu, started as a local brew and is now famous, with Chinese baijiu brands representing more than half the total valuations of spirits worldwide.
Last year, three Chinese baijiu brands – Moutai, Wuliangye, and Yanghe – made it to the top three spots in the evaluation of the ‘Top 50 Spirits in the World’. In fact, Chinese baijiu brands are replacing renowned Western brands. The first ranked baijiu brand, Moutai, was valued at a total of $21.2 billion while Johnnie Walker, the top Western spirit brand, and now at fifth place, had a brand value of only $4.3 billion. Chinese baijiu represents 54% of the Top 50 Spirits. To top it off, China has two airports that are named after baijiu brands: Yibin Wuliangye and Zunyi Maotai.
Baijiu, a clear alcohol usually distilled from fermented sorghum, is consumed by 1.4 billion Chinese, making it China’s national drink and the most consumed spirit in the world. Although it is an acquired taste and currently has a low profile around the world, businesses in China are going beyond the norm to establish it as a global brand. Expatriate experts are helping promote Ming River, a brand of baijiu, by partnering with U.S. restaurants, willing to pair it with Chinese cuisine.
Chinese distilleries are hoping to capitalise on public interest in distinct new flavours in spirits. They have increased the alcohol content to 40% — vodka and whisky contain a similar percentage – and are encouraging local and foreign bartenders to come up with creative alcohol-based concoctions.
Can Goa’s cashew feni reach the same levels of popularity as China’s baijiu? The overall volume of sale for feni is a mere 5% of market share currently. The major challenges to its rise in visibility are adulteration and inadequate marketing. Since Goan feni has GI status, its production is governed by standards. Adulterators, by not conforming to those standards, undermine its quality. Secondly, outside of Goa’s borders, few people are familiar with the drink. Once these hurdles are overcome, feni has the potential to achieve the success that China aspires to with its quest for global recognition for baijiu. (Chinese brands are dominating the market as the top 50 spirits in the world, and are therefore becoming the standards to which others aspire.)
Meanwhile, the central government can support GI in two specific ways: one, to provide funds to the DPIIT for legal research, scientific services and technical experts at minimum cost. This will give an increased stimulus to the GI market in India and promote the economic development and growth of the tourism industry in Goa.
Second, it must establish an effective and efficient legal mechanism to deal with the unauthorised production and sale of GI products. The Cell for IPR Promotion and Management (CIPRAM) provides a good model structure for GI protection.
Goa needs to realise the full potential of having GI tags and the glory, revenue and employment it can bring to the state and the nation. Superstar couple, Akshay Kumar and Twinkle Khanna, who are regular visitors to Goa, may consider investing in a cashew feni brand – for the sake of the brew. The investment by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in Chateau Miraval Cotes de Provence rosé took the pink blush wine to new heights.
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 Geographical Indications Registry, Government of India, <http://ipindiaservices.gov.in/GirPublic/Application/Details/120>
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 Chari, Bindiya, ‘At 5% market share, feni yet to capture ‘desi’ imagination’, Times of India, 5 March 2019, < https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/goa/at-5-market-share-feni-yet-to-capture-desi-imagination/articleshow/68262227.cms