Recently, Mr Fitsum Arega, the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States of America, tweeted news that the Court of The Hague had just handed down judgment in a matter in which two Dutch patents, concerning the processing of Teff, had been held to be invalid for lack of inventive step. His tweet continued "I hope we can learn from this that our national assets must be protected by Ethiopians & friends of #Ethiopia".
Teff is a nutrient rich gluten-free grain that is and has for a long time been an integral part of Ethiopia's heritage. It is used to make Injera, a pancake-like flatbread, which is a staple part of the Ethiopian diet.
The Dutch patents were in the name of a company owned by Dutch businessmen who, according to various media reports, had received traditional knowledge relating to Teff from Ethiopia in terms of an agreement in terms of which the traditional knowledge would be exploited for the mutual benefit of both parties. The businessmen, however, were not party to the agreement in their personal capacities but via a company which subsequently went insolvent resulting in their contractual obligations to Ethiopia with respect to the traditional knowledge ceasing. The businessmen then assigned the patents into the name of another entity and were able to exploit them free of any contractual obligations towards Ethiopia.
In South Africa, the Protection, Promotion, Development and Management of Indigenous Knowledge Systems Bill is currently before the National Assembly waiting for final approvals before being enacted into law. An aim of the Bill is to protect South African traditional knowledge to avoid situations like this one where traditional knowledge is exploited by third parties for no benefit to South Africa and without legal recourse.
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