Hic! Feni fights to regain turf in Goa
After a very long campaign, feni, a beverage distilled out of cashew apple, got geographical indication (GI) in 2009.
But even after obtaining the GI status, production of feni continues to decline, putting in danger the already-meagre export prospects. Reasons are many, but all lead to the fact the excise department in Goa has classified feni as a country liquor, there are restrictions in making or selling it in other states.
Feni is a beverage distilled from the sap of coconut tree as well as the juice of the cashew apple. A poor man’s drink earlier, feni dominated the alcohol market in Goa for long. With tourists and higher-income consumers preferring feni as an alternative, the product has undergone an image makeover in the market. Goa gained a GI registration for the cashew variety of feni in 2009.
GI is a name or sign used on certain products that relates to a particular geographical location or origin. It may act as a certification that the particular product has certain qualities, or has a certain reputation, due to its geographical origin.
However, Goan excise rules restrict the manufacturing and sales of country liquor outside the state. Though exports are permitted, the limited revenue from the state prevents distillers from marketing feni in a big way. Limited marketing has left feni in a losing race to its biggest competitor: Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL).
"Feni has consistently lost ground to IMFL, beer and now wine. While official data indicate that production of feni declined by 20% since 1971, IMFL production has grown 18-20 times during the same time period," said Pranab Mukherjee, academician and economist at South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE).
Distillers have been pushing for a GI for long, hoping that this will revive the prospects of the industry. But feni continues to lose market share. Studies by various agencies interested in reviving the feni industry has been going on since the last decade.
Obtaining a geographic indication was the first step in reviving the feni industry, says Gurudatta Bhakta, general secretary of All Goa Cashew feni Distillers and Bottlers Association, blaming the country-liquor tag as a hindrance.
However, the excise department of Goa clarifies that the only demand made is an import permit from other states. "If you secure an import permit from the state and apply, we approve it," says Navanath Naik, superintendent of excise, Goa.
"But other than Daman, no other state has shown an encouraging response towards importing feni, partly to secure its own country liquor market. The states do that by imposing huge excise fee." According to Mr Naik, the classification of country liquor is a mere formality to demarcate locally brewed beverages.
"At present, feni has a limited market, but has got an encouraging response among consumers wherever it has been exported," says Mac Vaz, director of a leading branded feni distiller Madame Rosa Distillery and president of All Goa Cashew feni Distillers & Bottlers Association. The excise department says any genuine export order is welcome.
"Any licensed distiller with an export order can directly apply to the commissioner of excise. We will verify whether the order is genuine and there are no legal complications before approving it," said Mr Naik.
There is another version of feni distilled out of coconut palm sap. But the makers of this variety is so far and few that they neither have the expertise nor the collective power to obtain a GI certification. Even among the cashew feni distillers, many are not aware of the GI initiative and its benefits, says a joint study carried out by SANDEE, the Goa University and Shodh, a Nagpur-based NGO.
According to the SANDEE study, the problem lies in the scattered manufacturing and bottling of the drink. "Differences in production technique, product quality and lack of uniform product testing mechanism" are the major ailments that has affected the Goan feni industry, lists the study.
"There never is a single solution to any problem. I think among others, a careful brand-building exercise, technology upgradation and more research in cashew apple as currently most of the effort in this area is concentrated on the nut production. State support for all this is crucial," says Mr Mukherjee.