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This is not just sugarloaf pineapple, this is Beninese sugarloaf pineapple

Africa is getting more ‘geographical indication’ labels for its food and drink.

Plenty of countries - including, perhaps implausibly, Britain - produce delicious sparkling wines. But only France can make champagne. That’s because that beverage has what is called a ‘geographical indication’ (GI). This means that only sparkling wine that comes from a specific place - the Champagne region of France - and is made in a specific way can be legally labelled as champagne.

Champagne is one of about 65,900 GIs that currently exist worldwide. However, these labels aren’t evenly distributed. Many European countries have thousands apiece, while Africa has only a handful throughout the entire continent. That’s not due to shortage of unique African food and drink dishes. Like many international institutions, the GI system was set up in a way that is Western-centric and complex to navigate. The result was that while a precursor to the GI system got off the ground in 1883, Africa’s first GI, for the Cameroonian Penja pepper, was only awarded in 2013.

But things may be starting to change. Since 2018, the African Union (a group made up of 55 of the continent’s countries) has been pursuing a ‘continental strategy’ to up the number of African GIs. In November 2021 Benin received its first one, for the sugarloaf pineapples that are grown on its southern plateaus.

Getting GI labels comes with cultural benefits: they can draw foreign foodies' attention to African exports and cuisines. But perhaps the biggest GI-related gains are financial. Because consumers see them as representing 'specialness' and quality, GIs allow producers to charge higher prices for their items. On average, foods with GI labels can be sold for 43 percent more. (GI wines have a 300 percent markup.) When the producers in question are small-scale African farmers, a group that is both large and largely low-income, this extra money can be life-changing. The incomes of Cameroonian pepper farmers are now six times larger. That’s money that can be spent on better healthcare, on education for their children, on investing in their farm in order to make it more productive, and on all sorts of other things that come with both economic and wellbeing benefits.

Yet not everyone is gung-ho for African GIs. Some people are concerned that without rigorous oversight, most of the financial gains of GIs will end up going to better-informed and better-connected middlemen rather than the farmers themselves. Others just dislike the concept of GIs entirely. GIs are a form of what economists call protectionism: they shield products from competition by other companies. For shoppers, this can mean higher prices and less choice. For farmers and other producers of non-GI foodstuffs, it can make it harder to turn a profit. One specific concern regarding conferring more GIs on African foodstuffs is that the price premium could place local delicacies out of reach for many residents, turning the products these people grew up with into items that are only enjoyed by the well-off and foreigners.

Read our explainer on: protectionism

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