GI & country identification: Branding Bangladesh

Dhaka,  Sun,  24 September 2017
Published : 17 Aug 2017, 19:50:42

GI & country identification: Branding Bangladesh

Imtiaz A. Hussain
'Location, location, location' might be a popular refrain understood best in business schools. It has been the slogan driving both foreign investors and marketing managers to determine production sites, the former in terms of the low-wage worker-supply possibility, the latter in terms of proximity with long-term sales. Though the slogan will continue for as long as humans consume and manufacture, currently it may also become fashionable within a different context, still within the business world.

Broadening the business scope of the slogan beyond foreign investment and marketing (both remain the monopoly of only a select few countries out of the near-200 in the United Nations), the 'location' pie many more countries find increasing interest in elevates another angle of culture. 

This specific entry-point has been around for a while, but is only just beginning to make waves, at least in Bangladesh.

That entry-point is simply dubbed 'geographical indication' (GI), an instrument created to protect intellectual property rights for cultural products both horizontally (small-time producers within the country) and vertically (the specific country against all others). 

Mohammad Towhidul Islam and Md. Ahsan Habib have pioneered scholarly discourse on the subject in the country. They trace the origin of such intellectual property rights to the late 19th Century, clearly to the 1883 Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property and the 1891 Madrid Agreement on Indications of Sources before identifying the 20th Century antecedents of the 1994 World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), the 1958 Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origins and their International Registrations and the 1989 Madrid Protocol to the 1891 Madrid Agreement  Concerning the International Registration of Marks and the Protocol Related to that Agreement (see their "Introducing geographical indication in Bangladesh," Dhaka University Law Journal, vol. 24, no. 1, June 2013).

At least two contemporary needs prompted the WTO TRIP package: the sheer expansion of the number of countries trading, and the increasing shifts from agricultural/industrial/ manufacturing goods into service-sector products, such as the Internet, software, migrants, nursing, and so forth. Whereas the innovations needed for farming and factory assembly-lines were limited, lasted a long enough time to have to worry about replacement, and located in countries capable to supply the hardware needed for manufacturing or mass production, software-type new innovations are far more nimble, portable, and accessible to the general public (obviously making most impact to those with higher intellectual skills). Patenting hardware was straightforward for those with the legal infrastructures and skills; but patenting this open-ended software-type of new innovations (or claims) required a game-changing plan. The WTO TRIPS package met that need, at least for the moment.

With culture now finding new business outlets, many countries can claim their piece of the booming trade-pie. If they do not have ample mass-produced exports, a cultural component could compensate for that. 

Therefore, the vigorous drives to discover and classify cultural components (even the 'World Heritage Site' campaign springing out of this movement), are not just to preserve identity claims and boost tourist visits: because of those claims, they can also bring in the bucks through commercial channels, if managed adroitly.

Having just netted its popular, tasty, elitist 'hilsa' as a GI product, Bangladeshi excitement could not have climbed faster. In fact, 'hilsa' is the country's second GI entry, after 'jamdani' saree, which means, a host of other culturally distinctive products can now be lined up for determination. 

Just as patenting or trade-marking any product, caveats galore riddle the process, but the journey is still worth taking. For example, if 'hilsa' was presented as a fish, it would not have received a GI approval, since a fish (or fish product) is too common. 

Others in the very small group of Bangladeshi GI experts, such as Md. Nayem Alimul Hyder, help explain why. Any GI designation must originate "in a delimited territory or region where a noted quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and/or the human or natural factors there" (from Hyder, "Geographical Indications protection in Bangladesh: An overview," International Journal of Business, Social, and Scientific Research, vol. 4, no. 2, Jan-Mar. 2016, 95-6).

Since estuary 'hilsa' tastes differently than upstream Padma 'hilsa', location clearly matters for GI branding, suggesting multiple 'hilsa' GI approvals can be applied for and sanctioned, in turn carrying a Darwinian twist: the better marketed (or more tasty) version will dominate: with dozens of pyramids across Mexico, for example, but only those at Teotihuacan or Chichen Itza command tourist attraction. 

The same would hold true for trademark sarees: not just the Sonargaon 'jamdani', but other well-known varieties from other locations (say Sylhet Monipur saree), carry a name and fame that can get GI acknowledgement, and thereafter, bring in some cash.

In a nutshell, then, a bulging box has been opened up of products almost immediately eligible for GI consideration, from edibles (fruit, sweets, and so forth), to apparel ('lungi' for instance). 

Enterprising as they are (and the subject is), a list of over 40 items has been proposed by the same experts that the country should pursue further: from Rajshahi's 'Fazlee' mango, Bogra's 'doi', Comilla's 'ras malai' and Tangail's 'chom-chom' to Comilla's 'khaddikapor', Rangpur's 'motihar' tobacco, Satkhira's clay tiles, and Rangpur's 'satranji' (rugs), among others.

Bangladesh has been neither a laggard nor niggardly in pursuing these opportunities. Through Law 54, the country's GI Act was cleared by the president on November 10, 2013, investing registration authority with the Department of Patents, Designing & Trademarks (DDPT) under the Industries Ministry. Among its implications: a new authoritative arena opens up for the government, in turn catalysing official attempts to convert possible culturally noteworthy items into GI listing for a wider global audience; but to also open Bangladesh up to the rest of the world by way of reciprocating by adopting the National Treatment Principle to other countries and their own GI products.

Ultimately, branding Bangladesh is set to take on a new face. On the one hand, it will no longer be just the RMG face that automatically springs up when the country's name is mentioned and, on the other, the increasingly diverse face streamlines with the country's upward climb on the global income staircase. 

At the producer's level, the RMG monopoly will finally have to ease so that other products and thereby a wider variety of potentially family-owned cottage industry, or micro-enterprise workers can also share the country's economic spotlight. Globally, we can now show an array, not necessarily of our garments and couture, but also of the cultural components that were a part of our identity far before the RMG era.

Finally, returning where the essay began, in the business world, we can expand two-way trade, diversify the items of trade, shift the production loci from towns/cities/ports to various hinterland locations, give foreigners more reasons to explore Bangladesh through its cultural claims, and, above all, sensitise more meaningful groups about our climate-change ground-zero status and why, behind the voracious economic/business and political instincts of every 21st Century citizen, culture speaking louder than words need not necessarily exacerbate nationalism. 'Location, location, location' still counts, but, as before, within a cosmopolitan context now, not nationalistic.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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