SCOTCH whisky distillers have won a major breakthrough in their bid to ramp up sales in Africa – one of the sector’s fastest-growing export markets.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) has secured geographical indication (GI) status for Scotch in the 17 member countries of the Organisation Africaine de la Propriete Intellectual (OAPI).

It gives the industry legal power to crack down on sales of counterfeit Scotch across the territories.

And it is a timely boost for distillers looking to capitalise on whisky’s growing popularity in Africa.

Although it has traditionally been a major beer market, distillers such as Diageo and Pernod Ricard have earmarked Africa as a priority as whisky becomes affordable to a growing middle class in countries across the continent.

The SWA said demand for Scotch is soaring in the OAPI markets, which include Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Republic of Congo, Senegal and Togo, noting that Scotch exports to those countries grew by 275 per cent to £13.6 million between 2005 and 2014.

The GI registration hands Scotch a significantly higher degree of protection in these market by allowing the industry to take “the strongest action” against producers of fake whisky. And while it is unlikely to eradicate counterfeit Scotch entirely, the SWA is confident the GI status will discourage counterfeit producers from entering these markets.

SWA legal counsel Andrew Swift said: “This is a significant step forward in the protection of Scotch whisky. OAPI covers a vast area with a growing population.

Demand for Scotch from countries in OAPI is growing. Between 2005 and 2014, Scotch exports to all OAPI countries increased by 275 per cent to £13.6m from just under £5m.

“Geographical indication status is of great value to the Scotch whisky industry and ensures we have the tools to protect consumers and stop unfair competition.”

The legal protection afforded to Scotch by GI registration dictates that the spirit must be made in Scotland from water, cereals and yeast, and matured for at least three years.

Scotch, which is believed to be the first drink to secure GI status in OAPI, secured the same legal protection in Botswana several months ago. It is now recognised in law in nearly 100 countries, including the entire European Union.

SWA spokeswoman Rosemary Gallagher said the organisation is continually making applications in a range of other countries where Scotch is exported.

She noted that the challenge posed to the industry from counterfeit whisky was not any more pronounced in Africa than markets elsewhere in the world.

However, Ms Gallagher emphasised that “Africa as a whole is a priority for Scotch whisky – and it is a growing market.”

She said: “Any market where Scotch is popular and getting more popular, there is always a danger of people who make fakes and try to take advantage of that popularity.

“It’s not that it’s much bigger in Africa than anywhere else, it’s more we want to guard against Scotch becoming an easy target by having the best protection possible in place.”

Ms Gallagher added: “We’ve got a zero tolerance attitude towards fakes around the world, so it just helps us impose that zero tolerance and take any action we can to stop fakes. Obviously they have to be found first. We’re not saying it is going to end the issue of fakes completely, but it does make it easier for us take action against it.

“It is also a deterrent to people – if they see Scotch whisky as GI it is going to stop people thinking they can easily fake a Scotch whisky and sell it.”

A Diageo spokesman said: "The protection of Scotch through Geographical Indication status has played an important role in the growth of the category in emerging markets around the world and we're delighted to see it being extended to the OAPI countries.

"Africa has great potential as a growth market for Scotch and this announcement is a positive step for the industry."

The SWA, which applied for the OAPI GI status last January, said the process of securing such registrations was more time consuming than a drain on financial resources. It praised the support it received from the British High Commission in securing the status.

Brian Olley, the British High Commissioner to Cameroon, said: “This is an historic moment and a practical step forward in providing protection to guard against improper use of the name Scotch whisky.

“I am delighted that the British High Commission has been able to play a part in contributing to this important progress in protecting consumers in Africa.”