Today there is an ongoing crisis in Ethiopia with the Tigray tribe, but this should not obliterate young entrepreneurs from admiring Ethiopia’s business culture. Especially its un-matched efforts to protect intellectual property that its people have achieved through the innovations in both the service and product sectors. The notable case in point is the lessons from a controversial patent on Ethiopia’s national cereal teff (known in Kenya as sim-sim) that was recently terminated at the court of the European Union.
Even though Ethiopia is known for centuries and centuries of producing, milling, and selling teff and related products, the teff economy became endangered as it has been threatened by the prolonged vice of bio-piracy from a Dutch Company. The Dutch shrewdly registered ownership of patent on teff products in Europe against all established historical and cultural as well as economic evidence that Teff, also known as dwarf millet, is to Ethiopia what maize is to Kenya and as rice is to China. The history of Ethiopia’s food production clearly shows that teff is the country’s most important foodstuff, the basis for the national dish injera. Injera is a soft, spongy, pancake-like bread that is part and parcel of Ethiopia’s food culture.
Surprisingly, the Dutch company made secret legal maneuvers to become the self-righteous lawful holder of the patent on processed teff flour. This means that in all of the European countries, no flour from the gluten-free and nutrient-rich super grain – Teff can be sold without paying royalties to the Netherlands. This has been an economic violation for the people of Ethiopia. An interview carried out among Ethiopian Nationals for this article outrightly established that it is particularly perfidious that the Dutch company started by conducting research on teff – together with Ethiopia – having agreed to share the genetic information obtained for commercial use; only to circumvent the Ethiopian government in 2004 and filed a patent alone in total exclusion of the farmers and collaborating researchers from Ethiopia.
Some Liberal Media concerns in Europe like the one published in Deutsch Welle in Amharic by Azeb Tadesse-Hahn expressed discontent with how the European Patent Office made exclusive choices to grant a monopoly to the Dutch company on a wide range of products made from Ethiopian teff in Europe. Even though the operating legal principle together with other active international agreements excludes plants from patenting, still the Dutch firm went ahead to patent Ethiopian Teff in Europe by taking advantage of the loophole in the international business law. The law states that “there is a window in the upstream and downstream value chain of a plant in the sense that when the plant is processed into a foodstuff, technology is used and hence the owner of technology is developing something new and inventive capabilities to be patented.” This is why Anton Horn, the defense lawyer on behalf of the Dutch company argued, the patent on teff products did not concern a plant, but its processed form, namely flour.
But logic challenges Mr. Horn’s argument on the basis of the fact that teff flour has been manufactured in Ethiopia for over a hundred centuries before the Dutch company was formed. Or maybe this experience of the Dutch company and Ethiopian teff is a moment of reckoning that the traditional knowledge and cultural heritage from countries of the global south are not economic resources for the virtue of their existence as collective memories seldom available in written form.
In politics of business, such acts as the one perpetrated by the Dutch company is known as bio-piracy. This is not an isolated case as many other corporate giants engage in marketing plants or other biological material from the global south without sharing the profits with the countries of origin. Some other current examples of bio-piracy are the patents on the value-added chains of Rooibos Tea from South Africa that have been used by the locals for generations but now patented by European corporations in Europe.
There are International agreements like the Nagoya Protocol which protects the right to an absolute patent by countries in the south to the shared added and value created from the use and further development of their native plants. But the Western legal gymnastics empower the corporate owners of new technologies such as DNA sequencing and synthetic biology to circumvent such agreements to determine and digitize the DNA of plants on site and hence platform for exclusive patenting.
Good riddance, the Ethiopian legal struggle at European Union Court to recover the stolen patent on teff products has not been in vain. Soon, the teff flour patent will expire in all European countries. This is a lesson enough to the young entrepreneurs in Ethiopia and other African countries to be vigilant about intellectual property. It is also an economic value.