Puno launches new collective brand ‘Aynok’a’ to compete in the quinoa market

ADAM GAMWELL AND CORINNA HOWLAND

Puno is launching a new collective brand to give the region’s farmers a leg-up in the quinoa market. In a first for Peru, farmers will be the brand’s owners. But they are entering a crowded marketplace — of products and ideas alike. Meanwhile, local political struggles complicate the project.

Puno is launching a new collective brand to give the region’s farmers a leg-up in the quinoa market. Different from a denomination of origin stamp (DO) or corporate logo, farmers will be the sole owners of this brand — the first of its kind in Peru. The brand, “Aynok’a — Ancestral Highland Quinoa” (pronounced how it looks), draws its name from the Aymara word for a traditional form of collective land management still practised across the region. Launching in the local market in the first half of 2016, it will be available for international export from early 2017.

The Aynok’a brand is a response to bottoming prices and high levels of competition with coastal Peruvian quinoa, seeking to set Puneñan organic quinoa apart from the rest of the market. This became particularly important following a scandal in 2014. A shipment of organic quinoa marked from Puno but allegedly mixed with conventionally-produced quinoa from the coast, was rejected by FDA officials at the US border for excessive pesticide content. This prompted local authorities to pursue strategies for reclaiming Puno’s good name as a pre-eminent and trustworthy source of organic quinoa, and hopefully improving historically low prices. As agronomist Bonifacio Chambi notes, Puno has historically been a site of organic production based in a close, and caring relationship with nature that is unique to the Peruvian highlands. He claims the proof is in the pudding: “The difference is that Puno actually does have very good foodstuffs […] they are healthy and natural, and we are unlikely to find these in other markets”.

The solution was to embark on a three-year long project of selecting, designing, and testing the Aynok’a brand with local and international consumers, managed by representatives from the Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture in collaboration with farmers and the regional government. Collective branding was chosen over other types of intellectual property to give farmers greater ownership over the project (DOs, for example, are usually owned and administered by state authorities). This means that any Puneñan farmer growing organic quinoa has the rights to use the brand and packaging. They must, however, abide by a set of stringent rules and regulations set down by the Ministry of Agriculture and administered by a collective of farmers known as the Association for Ecological Agroindustry of Andean Grains (AEAAG). Quinoa vendors can also use the mark on their own packaging. Farmers pay a nominal fee to the AEAAG collective to use the Aynok’a name and design. Although still a work in progress, quinoa producer Encarnación Percca Condori is quietly confident that the brand will help Puneñan farmers: “This brand is going to identify that the quinoa really is from Puno and is organic”. Agronomist Gastón Quispe Charaja agrees: “It’s a problem solved […] and an honour for me personally that this name has been designated as a collective brand”.

The collective has certified five plants in the region who can process and package the Aynok’a brand, including COOPAIN, Sierra Exportadora, and El Altiplano SAC. The brand will also drive the production of value-added products, such as panettone sweet-breads, cookies, crackers, and noodles, in addition to pre-washed grains and quinoa flour.

Quinoa producers join project leaders at the November 2015 launch of the brand (Photo: Adam Gamwell).

Inside Aynok’a (a view from anthropology)

Anthropological thinking can help us to explore the social mechanisms and human stories behind how and why something becomes marketable. Aynok’a provides an important window into the culture and politics of branding.

What’s in a brand?

Brands are designed to be recognizable, easy-to-understand identifiers that help us associate a set of ideas and feelings with a product. We might think of a brand as an indicator of significance. Think of Starbucks Coffee, IKEA furniture, or a McDonald’s Big Mac. Each of these evokes a different feeling or association. Branded commodities can connect us to particular notions of home, flavors of childhood, or comfort. But they also connect us to what we see as exotic or novel. As quinoa moves from farm production to regional markets to export and international consumers, which ideas are shipped with the brand and which are left behind? How are these repackaged for our consumption?

The quinoa market in the United States, Europe, and other western countries draws on ideas of health, organic production, fairly-paid farmers, and links to traditional or indigenous culture to sell its products (check out Ancient Harvest or Andean Naturals for examples — hint: the clue is in the name). Aynok’a draws on similar themes of nature, health, and ancestral cultures, so let’s dive into these ideas to understand what happens when we start to engage with that box of quinoa on the supermarket shelf. Taking our cue from Aynok’a’s packaging:

“This brand belongs to the producers and promotes community work by rural farmers as well as providing market access for more than 1500 families. By buying Aynok’a you are directly supporting certified organic producers in Puno; collaborating to improve the livelihoods of many families…”.

“AYNOK’A Organic Quinoa is produced at 3800 meters above sea level in lands near Lake Titicaca, just as it was done thousands of years ago”.

“Studies have found more than 65 genotypes of quinoa in a single Aynok’a that has been used for generations”.

What kind of images and associations do these words evoke for us as consumers? How do they present quinoa and its producers? As out of the flow of time, not subject to the same forces of rapid historical change that we in the west have experienced. According to Aynok’a’s packaging, precisely nothing has changed for the Puneñan farmer — the land is sown “just as it was done thousands of years ago”. The people of the Andes become a people without history, who have maintained a firm grip on an unchanging ‘tradition’. Closer to nature, they seem to have kept hold of an ‘ancient wisdom’ that we, in the west, have lost; a quasi-mystical knowledge about the earth, its rhythms, and its richness of flora and fauna that us city-slickers traded in for iPhones and fast food. And although poor and lacking in material comforts, indigenous farmers supposedly make up for it with life-long social ties to a peaceful community where everyone works together, supported by the Aynok’a brand.

Source: Andean Naturals

Why do these images matter? In the above photo from US-based quinoa importer Andean Naturals, a ponchoed Andean farmer plays a “hymn to the harvest” on his rustic wooden panflute, while llamas graze on nearby hills. It’s not that these images are false, but that their realities are far more complex than the picture shows (a thousand words might just not be enough). This is something we anthropologists like to call the politics of representation — who and what is being represented (and omitted), and how. There is a lot of cultural work that goes on, behind-the-scenes, to create this stereotypical image of the materially-poor, but socially and spiritually-rich Andean farmer. And the challenge is that sometimes, this is the only access we have to information about ‘the other’ — those different from our own cultural group. The image becomes our reality.

And this is why it is just as, if not more, interesting to consider what ideas aren’t sold with a brand. Although Aynok’a makes for an exotic-sounding handle, very little is actually made of what Aynok’a means. The brand takes its name from an Andean form of land management based on the annual rotation of key crops — potato, quinoa, barley or legumes, followed by a minimum three-year resting period — that provides time-tested natural pest management, promotes crop biodiversity, and ensures sustainable organic production. The practice has been in decline for centuries as farmers have migrated in search of work or better opportunities, through the changing priorities of generations, and shifts in how local communities organise themselves (growing crops together is, after all, a collective project). Recently, however, the positive environmental impact of Aynok’as has garnered the attention of agronomists and NGOs. Around Puno the Aynok’a system is experiencing a resurgence in the face of climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet the brand doesn’t seem to use much of this idea to help sell its quinoa. Partly this is because you can’t fit all that neatly on the side of a box, and partly this is because you don’t need detailed information to make a connection with a product. It’s enough just to activate the idea of authentic people, exotic food, and ancient practices to get you to buy the goods.

Overlooking an aynok’a in Southern Puno (Photo: Colin Stone Peacock).

Of course, not all consumers will connect with this kind of imagery. For others, the fact that quinoa is a ‘healthier’, gluten-free, protein-packed alternative to many grains is enough of a selling point. But these ideas also activate deeply-held cultural understandings about the relationship between nature and culture. We think of ‘ancient grains’ like quinoa as being more natural than their less-exotic counterparts, although they may in fact require a great deal more human intervention and processing to make it to your plates (the soapy saponin coating is a bugger to remove, but it makes for an excellent shampoo). Either way, both of these forms of representation help to elicit an emotional and aesthetic connection to the brand, vis-a-vis authentic people and natural nature.

Local Struggles

Brands are not neutral, although we don’t often think of them as being ‘political’. This becomes obvious when we think of brands as deciding to ‘get involved’ in politics — for example, when Oreo published its rainbow cookie meme in support of US LGBTQ pride month, prompting a flood of support and fierce backlash (and netting them a substantial upswing in publicity). But even when not explicitly courting controversy or taking a stand on a hot-button issue, brands can become sites of political struggle in themselves.

In the case of the Aynok’a brand, the name itself is the most controversial part. This is because although Puno is home to two major ethnic and linguistic groups, Quechua and Aymara, Aynok’a is an Aymara term. So when the name was announced at the brand’s initial launch ceremony in November last year, there was a lot of muttering in the room on the part of the producers present. Even we were surprised at the choice of brand name, and yet more surprised when one of the Aymara agronomists lent over to us and said “Thank God it’s in Aymara”. In response, the project’s leaders explained the term had been chosen by a marketing consultant from a large number of suggestions because it easily rolled off the tongue of local and international consumers — in effect, trying to neutralise the brand’s potentially divisive moniker. However, this choice could have ramifications for how willing some quinoa farmers are to make use of the Aynok’a handle: “Quechua farmers are jealous of the name,” one Aymara producer told us.

Brands are also political because they represent monetary and other forms of value (Donald Trump recently valued his personal ‘Trump’ brand at an optimistic $3.3 billion US dollars, for example). And although Aynok’a doesn’t have any market value or recognition so far, it is still an important site of power locally. For agronomists such as Bonifacio Chambi, fronting a project like this provides him with status and recognition in his workplace and in the wider community — even more so if the project becomes successful. Yet this also means he is subject to power-struggles, in what can be a competitive culture of agronomists working in the Puno region. Others have been critical of his leadership, claiming he has been strong-arming farmers into joining the programme and signing up to ‘his’ regional cooperative, despite low-levels of interest, but hasn’t taken the necessary steps to make the brand work by securing quinoa to sell.

But it’s not all about office politics. Choosing a collective brand over other available options is also a broader strategy on the part of powerful actors, such as the Peruvian government. In interviews about the brand, we were repeatedly told that Puno’s quinoa farmers are the brand’s owners. Yet their involvement in the process of its creation has been limited to a handful of representatives. The first many knew of it was the invitations they received through their agricultural cooperatives and associations, to come to the November 2015 launch. And although they’ll be helping to regulate the brand’s use, this select group of producers will still be overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture.

To us in the West, the idea of ownership (particularly for poor and relatively powerless farmers) seems like a worthy one. But for the Peruvian state, claiming that farmers are the brand’s owners is also a useful political tactic. It powerfully justifies and legitimatizes the state’s work by claiming that the subjects of their development projects are the real protagonists, the people who seek out, author, and own their own development. This is not to say that the people don’t want the Aynok’a brand, or state and NGO-led development more generally (they often do here — particularly if they can benefit materially from it). But it does form part of a new language of development that, in effect, pushes the work the state does backstage by keeping focus squarely on the owner-producers. This narrative isn’t just limited to the Aynok’a brand — it’s an increasingly common way of talking about development projects. Put quite simply, whether true or not, it’s a handy form of image-management for states and NGOs: deflecting any criticism which might hone in on the non-involvement or non-ownership of the project’s participants, and adding an extra layer of legitimacy to their work.

The Aynok’a collective brand is not just a neutral marketing strategy: it’s a battle for the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of consumers around the world. Aynok’a plays into very different political struggles on each side of the producer/consumer divide — speaking to stereotypes about developing-world producers and natural products, while fueling local campaigns for status and legitimacy. Only time will tell if Aynok’a can help Puneñans get ahead in a competitive market.