This article is part of our special report EU agrifood relations with Africa: what lies ahead?.
The enormous tradition and diversity in African agricultural products may benefit from the use of the intellectual property tool for food protection that Europeans have been held most dear.
Over the years, EU countries have mastered the concept of Geographical indications (GIs) which are designed to protect the names of specific products to promote their unique characteristics, linked to their geographical origin as well as to the know-how embedded in the region.
European citizens can find these products on their supermarket shelves labelled with specific labels for local food specialities such as PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication).
These product names are included in the EU system of intellectual property rights, legally protecting them against imitation and misuse.
A recent European Commission study that collected economic data from 3,207 GI protected products from across the EU, found that GIs represent a sales value of €74.76 billion.
GIs represent a success story that Europe wants to promote and export globally and particularly in Africa.
The African Union (AU) has requested the support of UN food agency FAO to establish a continental strategy for GIs, a call that was picked up by other global institutions including the European Commission, the French Agency for development (AFD) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
The strategy for GIs in Africa was finally endorsed in October 2017, receiving the immediate support of the EU which considers GIs as part of the intellectual property rights protocol of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), a major AU flagship project to which the EU has committed to provide full support.
A tool for development
The protection of GIs could help preserve and promote Africa’s rich agricultural tradition, creating a legal framework on intellectual property and at the same time contributing to rural development in African countries.
“It is a very long process but GIs represent a real tool for development and, if they are successful, they can bring value to the whole food value chain, including smallholders,” Sibylle Slattery, project coordinator in the Food and Nutrition division at FAO, told EURACTIV.
She added that GIs can also contribute to preserving African biodiversity since these traditional products might disappeared without the added boost given by this form of protection.
On the environmental side, a strong reliance on certain GI products could increase monocultures and, therefore, the FAO is supporting good practices to produce these foodstuffs with methods such as agroecology that have less impact on the environment.
According to FAO’s Slattery, GIs are also good for socialising. Since they promote traditional products, the farming community takes even greater pride in what they are producing, also rebalancing the role of women who are crucial for farming practices in developing countries.
In view of the upcoming 6th AU-EU summit in 2021, the Commission’s Directorate-General for agriculture (DG AGRI) has proposed some concrete actions on GIs that are all supported by the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) responsible for managing the trademarks in the common market.
One includes the direct registration as a GI in the EU of Penja pepper from Cameroon. It would be the first sub-Saharan GI approved in the EU and the first African one not originating in South Africa.
Another action forecast will be the launch of a manual on GIs in Africa co-sponsored by the AU and the Commission.
Since the launch of the AU GIs strategy in 2017, a consultative committee has been established the DG AGRI to guide the implementation of the strategy. It is composed by the African Union Commission (AUC), the two African Intellectual Property Offices (OAPI and ARIPO) and the European Commission. FAO, WIPO and EUIPO are invited as observers.
The implementation of the strategy constitutes an opportunity to address the shortcomings of international protection of GIs by enforcing convergent rules and practices at the continental level.
This would encourage trade and improve the positioning of African products on regional, continental and international markets.
The EU executive have also allocated funds to launch together with the EUIPO an international cooperation project called AfrIPI aiming at creating, protecting, and enforcing intellectual property rights across Africa.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]