Teff, the grain that had been feeding Ethiopia for centuries, is a thing very much engrained in the local culture. The patent right for some varieties of this grain however, is registered to a Netherlands company, after the grain was shipped to the country in the name of research in 2008. Now, after much damage is done, a committee of officials from Ethiopia are trying to return ownership of the country’s staple grain writes ASHENAFI ENDALE, Special To Fortune.
Alemu Kasaw, 48, is a farmer in South Wollo, Wegdi Wereda. He feeds his family of seven with what he harvests from 1.5ha of land, which he inherited from his father. He grows magna and red teff on one hectare and covers the rest with sorghum and barley.
He harvested 20ql of teff last year. The teff is for personal consumption, as well as for sale at market. Recently, he sold eight quintals for 12,000 Br. Teff still provides two-thirds of basic nutrition for the people ofEthiopia. It represents 28pc of the total cereal production in the country, whilst occupying 2.7 million hectares, as of 2011\12. It is still, however, relatively unknown as a food crop elsewhere.
Almeu has spent the last 22 years cultivating teff. He has no idea if teff (Eragrostis tef) can be used to make biscuits or not. He also has no inkling regarding the property rights to teff. Alemu, and many generations of farmers before him, have always harvested teff, and Ethiopian researchers have developed improved varieties over a number of years. Now the rights to the genetic varieties of teff, and the traditional knowledge of harvesting methods, belong to a Dutch company, Vennootschap Onder Firma (VOF).
VOF has patented this knowledge, in several countries, predominantly in the European Union it inherited the knowledge when another Dutch company went bankrupt.
“Teff is a gift from our fathers, it does not belong to anyone else but we, the farmer,” Alemu said, when he heard of the situation.
Teff is believed to have originated inEthiopiabetween 4000 and 1000 BC. It is grown primarily as a cereal crop inEthiopia. Eragrostis tef is one of the 350 species in the genus Eragrostis, consisting of both annuals and perennials, which are found over a wide geographic range.
VOF acquired the teff rights from Health Performance and Food International (HPFI), in 2008, for princely the sum of 60,000 euro. More than 20 times the amount HPFI paidEthiopia, when it initially acquired the rights.
The teff rip-off followed a seemingly innocent research proposal from theLarensteinUniversity, in theNetherlands, in collaboration with the Dutch Soil and Crop Company, S&C.
The University bought 12 varieties of teff genetic resources, each in 120Kg packages, from the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Centre (DARC), part of the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Centre (EARO), according to a ‘to-whom-it-may-concern’ letter. The letter was signed by Solomon Assefa (PhD), the then managing director of the Centre, on August 21, 2003. The sale was made in April, 2003.
This transfer was based on an earlier Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which was signed between EARO (now called Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research – EIAR), S&C, which owned HPFI, and Larenstein University. The MoU allowed the University to purchase 60kg to 150Kg of the 12 teff varieties, which had been released a short while earlier, from DARC.
The University and S&C later said that they had developed eight of their own varieties, based on the 12 they had received.
Dubbed DZ-01-196, magna teff, one of Alemu’s favourites, is one of the 12 teff varieties HPFI received from DARC.
The consequence of the transfer later became something that officials from DARC and other concerned government institutions would heavily regret.
The transfer of the varieties was not in accordance with the MoU, says Zeleke Woldetensae, genetic resource transfer and regulation director at the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (IBC).
“The right amount of genetic resource, which is permitted to be given to an institution for research purpose is only in grams,” explains Zeleke. “And even then offspring of the genes have to be destroyed after the result of the research project is concluded.”
An official at the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO), who declined to be named, added further weight to that sentiment.
“The 1,440Kg of teff genetic resource was far too much for research. Even an Ethiopian farmer does not gain access to that much breeder teff,” he said.
IBC gave responsibility to the Ethiopian Revenue and Costumes Authority (ERCA), Ethiopian Postal Service (EPS) and regional governments to control any export of biological samples from the country.
“We asked IBC several times to put its own person at ERCA to control such transfer of genetic materials,” stated an official at the ERCA, who declined to be identified.
Zeleke agrees with the ERCA official, but commented that the IBC had a budget shortage and were unable to hire an additional person to be deployed to the ERCA.
Article 13, Proclamation No. 120/1998, by which the IBC was established as an independent institution, says that “any person who collects, dispatches, exports or imports any biological specimen/sample without permit from the Institute shall be punished with five to 10 years of imprisonment and a 15,000 Br to 20,000 Br fine”.
DARC has no mandate to transfer any genetic material, and the transfer of the teff genetic resource was out of recognition of the IBC, according to Zeleke.
The IBC is responsible for promoting and ensuring the appropriate conservation, research, development and sustainable utilisation of the country’s biodiversity. It is also the actual body in charge of providing access to genetic resources inEthiopia.
Article 12 of the Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) law, inEthiopia, does not permit the export of genetic resources fromEthiopia, unless it is impossible for the research they are needed for to be conducted inEthiopia.
HPFI, which is under S&C, filed for property rights over teff and processes related to it, in the Netherlands, in September 2003, and in other European countries in July 2004, under the European Patent Office (EPO). Additional patents were then acquired inJapan, theUnited States,Australia, and Latin American countries. The company claimed a sole distributor title for teff and its products in the countries where it filed for a patent. EPO granted the patent back in 2007.
The Dutch company took advantage of the lack of awareness inEthiopia, Zeleke says.
Germanywas the only country that opposed the claim. The Germans have long been involved with the IBC, according to an official at the EIAR.
“Everything the EIAR has, the Germans have,” he said.
HPFI, which had not yet been replaced by VOF, started promoting its teff flour as European standard for use in biscuits, bread and cakes. The Ethiopian Embassy in theNetherlandslearned of the situation in 2004, leading to a negotiation between the IBC and HPFI, for benefits from the 20 varieties of genetic resources the company was using.
In April 2005, the IBC, EARO and HPFI signed a 10-year agreement. The agreement introduced a plan to share the benefits that HPFI would gain from teff business.
The agreement has, what it calls, gross net income gained by the company. The company is expected to give one percent of this income, for 2007, 2008 and 2009. This payment was to be made immediately after the publication of the company’s 2009 financial report. It would also pay a royalty of 30pc of the net profit, licence fees of 10 euro per hectare annually, and contribute five percent of net profits, which should not be less than 20,000 euro annually, to the Financial Resource Support for teff.
The agreement also required the Dutch sides to use their own inventions to utilise teff. They would have to get explicit permission if they sought to access Ethiopian traditional knowledge for their business.
HPFI had been growing teff in theNetherlands,SpainandRomania, which it sold for as much as 100 euros a kilo, according to Zeleke. It provided teff flour to European countries, theUnited States, Asia andAustralia. The only payment it ever made toEthiopia, however, was 46,600 Br, back in 2007, which it gave to the IBC.
HPFI declared bankruptcy, in 2009, but the business continued under another company, VOF, established in 2007.
After getting its first patent on teff, from the EPO, in 2007, the company halted all communications withEthiopia.
“Ethiopiacould have stopped the patent process before it was given to HPFI, but no one appealed to the EPO, or other countries where the company filed for patent, in order to object to the claim,” said Joep Van Den Broek, agricultural advisor at the Embassy of theNetherlands.
“We had a financial problem to follow up the case inEurope,” said Zeleke.
IBC tried to communicate with [VOF] in 2008 through official letters and e-mails, but it got no answer, according to Abiyot Berhanu, public relations director at IBC.
When HPFI declared bankruptcy in 2009, IBC declared their agreement null and void. HPFI, however, sold the patent rights to VOF, for 60,000 Euros.
The teff rights are now being used by Prograin International, a company under VOF, who markets two teff flour brands, known as “Eragrain” and “Ecosem”.
VOF is run by the same executives that managed the allegedly bankrupt HPFI, according to research conducted by Norwegian researchers and published by Fridtjof Nansen Institute, on November 12, 2012.
The research was done as a contribution to the German-led ‘Access and Benefit Sharing’ (ABS) agreement, focusing on African experiences with ABS, from the use of their genetic resources.
A committee was formed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to work for the annulment of the property right, and the payment of over one million euros in unpaid fees.
The committee has appealed to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to revoke the patent on teff. It also initiated diplomatic negotiations with theNetherlandsgovernment, in June 2012. The committee is secretive about what it is doing, in an attempt to avoid any information leaking out to [VOF], says Abiyot.
The decision to establish the committee, was made after the EPRDF’s eighth organisational meeting, held at Adama, on September 15, 2010. Most of the parliamentary members present raised sensitive concerns about teff property rights thatEthiopiahad lost.
The committee has members from the MoFA, the IBC, the EIPO, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, as well as international lawyers, according to Abiyot.
TheNetherlandsgovernment will be cooperative with the IBC and the committee, said Joep van Den.
The committee has a backup plan to take it to an international court, in case the negotiations fail, according to Abiyot.
Ethiopiahas banned the export of teff since 2006, after shortages impacted the country.
Ethiopia is a signatory of the Convention of Biological Diversities (CBD). The Nagoya Protocol on ‘access to genetic resources’ and the ‘fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilisation’, provides a transparent legal framework for the effective implementation of fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources. The Nagoya Protocol was adopted on 29 October, 2010, in Nagoya,Japan, and will enter into force 90 days after the 50th country ratifies the agreement.
So far nine countries, including;Ethiopia,Gabon,Jordan,Laos,Mexico,Rwanda,Seychelles,India and Fiji have ratified it.
Teff’s patent future is unclear, but the IBC has learned a lesson in signing deals that are beneficial to the country, whilst still bringing in income. In 2006 and 2011 it signed two agreements, with a British and Indian company, respectively. The British company, Vernique BioTech Ltd, paid 387,270 Br for a plant, called Vernonia (Vernonia Galamensis). The Indian company, DoCoMo Plc, was interested in plants, known by their Amharic names as; Gizawa (Withania Sominfera), Ader (Dichrostachys Cinerea) and Keret (Osyris Spe), and paid 2.97 million Br to acquire them, according to Bethlehem Ketema, public relations officer at IBC. The company is interested in the plants for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.
Vernique BioTech declared bankruptcy in 2007, whilst DoCoMo is expected to set up a factory inEthiopia, where it will process the plants into a variety of products.
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