Whose in­jera is it any­way?

A Dutch com­pany holds the patent for Ethiopia’s most pop­u­lar food — but now Ethiopia wants its in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty back

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Si­mon Al­li­son

In­jera, Ethiopia’s sta­ple food, was in­vented by a Dutch­man in 2003. That’s ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean Patent Of­fice, which lists the Nether­lands’ Jans Roos­jen as the “in­ven­tor” of teff flour and as­so­ci­ated food prod­ucts. Teff is a plant en­demic to Ethiopia, and the grain is used to make the spongy fer­mented pan­cake that Ethiopi­ans eat with their meals.

Roos­jen also has a patent for the “in­ven­tion” in the United States — though he is pa­tently not the in­ven­tor of a prod­uct that has been around for mil­len­nia.

Ethiopi­ans are non­plussed.

“For some­one from Europe, from across the ocean, in a dif­fer­ent con­ti­nent, to come and say we patented teff and the copy­right is ours …” Kas­sahun Ge­bre­hana, owner of the Lit­tle Ad­dis Café in Mabo­neng, Jo­han­nes­burg, shakes his head. “Have they been eat­ing it for cen­turies? We have.”

Ge­bre­hana says it’s im­pos­si­ble to over­state the sig­nif­i­cance of teff and in­jera to Ethiopian cui­sine and cul­ture. “We are ad­dicted to teff. We can­not live with­out it. Once I lived in Maseru and I would drive four-anda-half hours to Jo­han­nes­burg just to get some teff in­jera. We can­not say we eat food with­out in­jera.”


The story of how Ethiopia lost the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty for teff and its as­so­ci­ated prod­ucts in Europe be­gan in the early 2000s, with a bright idea: If Ethiopi­ans love teff so much, why wouldn’t the rest of the world? The tiny grain — the world’s small­est grain, in fact — is gluten-free and rich in nu­tri­ents, beloved by hip­sters and di­eti­cians alike. It was, and re­mains, per­fectly poised to take ad­van­tage of the global health food trend. Teff could be the next kale or quinoa.

Dutch re­searchers formed a com­pany, which even­tu­ally be­came Health and Per­for­mance Food In­ter­na­tional, to ex­plore op­tions to mar­ket teff in Europe. Roos­jen was a di­rec­tor. Af­ter many ne­go­ti­a­tions with dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties, the com­pany reached a deal with Ethiopia to plant and distribute teff in Europe. In re­turn, it would send a hefty slice of the prof­its back to Ad­dis Ababa.

Th­ese de­tails are all courtesy of re­searchers Regine An­der­sen and Tone Winge, who in 2012 pub­lished a com­pre­hen­sive paper on the sub­ject for the Fridtjof Nansen In­sti­tute.

At the time, the deal was hailed as ground-break­ing: for once, an African coun­try was ac­tu­ally going to ben­e­fit from its pre­cious natural re­sources. But not ev­ery­one was im­pressed: in 2004 the Coali­tion Against Biopiracy gave the Dutch com­pany its award for the “most out­ra­geous” deal: “The com­pany ap­pears to be obliv­i­ous to the fact that they are seek­ing to mo­nop­o­lise teff va­ri­eties that were de­vel­oped over mil­len­nia by Ethiopian farm­ers and com­mu­nity plant breed­ers,” reads the ci­ta­tion.

In 2003, Ethiopian of­fi­cials boxed up 1440kg of teff seeds and shipped them off to the Nether­lands. From there, it was sup­posed to find its way into kitchens all over Europe. Nine­ty­one Dutch agrar­ian en­trepreneurs started grow­ing teff, and that year 620 hectares were har­vested.

But things did not go ac­cord­ing to plan. The de­mand for teff never ma­te­ri­alised, and the much-lauded deal earned the Ethiopian gov­ern­ment a mere pit­tance: just €4000 in to­tal. In 2009 the Dutch com­pany went bank­rupt, mean­ing in ef­fect that the con­tract was ter­mi­nated.

But Health and Per­for­mance Food In­ter­na­tional had al­ready ap­plied for and been granted patents for the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of teff in Europe, and th­ese did not lapse when the com­pany went bank­rupt. Th­ese patents are in­cred­i­bly broad, cov­er­ing most forms of teff flour, as well as all prod­ucts that re­sult from mix­ing teff flour with liq­uids. Th­ese in­clude bread, pan­cakes, short­cake, cook­ies, cakes and, of course, in­jera.

Blan­ket patent

“The com­pany ar­gued that such a broad patent was re­quired to se­cure the in­vest­ments in teff and thus also the prospects of ben­e­fit shar­ing with Ethiopia,” said An­der­sen and Winge.

“In prac­tice, the teff patent ex­cludes all oth­ers, in­clud­ing Ethiopia it­self, from util­is­ing teff for most forms of rel­e­vant pro­duc­tion and mar­ket­ing in the coun­tries where it is granted. The patent was also filed in the USA and Ja­pan.

“A de­vel­op­ment had started whereby Ethiopia was be­com­ing side­lined. The coun­try found it­self squeezed out of po­si­tion to utilise its own teff ge­netic re­sources — for ex­am­ple, through co-op­er­a­tion with other for­eign com­pa­nies — in Europe and wher­ever else the teff patent might be granted, while at the same time los­ing all prospects of shar­ing the ben­e­fits from the use of th­ese ge­netic re­sources.”

Now Ethiopia wants its in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty back. Ear­lier this year, the Ethiopian In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Of­fice an­nounced that it would do ev­ery­thing in its power to re­claim the teff patents, in­clud­ing le­gal and diplo­matic ac­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the state-run Ethiopian Her­ald, a gov­ern­ment spokesper­son said the coun­try was los­ing money to Euro­pean com­pa­nies, which take ad­van­tage of the patent sit­u­a­tion to sup­ply teff prod­ucts to in­ter­na­tional mar­kets — with­out fun­nelling any­thing back to Ethiopia.

It’s about time that the sit­u­a­tion changes, says Lit­tle Ad­dis owner Ge­bre­hana.

“You can’t say this thing was patented in 2003. It’s our sta­ple food. In Ethiopia, when we pray, we don’t say ‘give us our daily bread.’ We say: ‘give us our daily in­jera.’ ”

“The coun­try found it­self squeezed out of po­si­tion to utilise its own teff ge­netic re­sources”

Daily bread: The spongy flat­bread in­jera (above) is not a Dutch in­ven­tion but has been Ethiopia’s sta­ple food for cen­turies, says Kas­sahun Ge­bre­hana (left), the owner of the Lit­tle Ad­dis Café in Mabo­neng. Pho­tos: Oupa Nkosi & Wikus de Wet

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