27 January 2018

Kenya: Maasai NGO Fighting to Protect and Profit From Community's Multi-Million Shillings Brand

Photo: Lauren Everitt/AllAfrica
Young Masai women perform in traditional dress in Arusha, Tanzania.

Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI), a non-profit organisation, has taken legal steps to protect the cultural heritage of the nearly 2 million Maasais living in Kenya and Tanzania.

The organisation's founder Isaac Ole Tialolo has hired lawyers to persuade multinational companies to not only recognize Maasai trademark but to also pay for it.

The opposite was the case in 2011 when Louis Vuitton's Spring/Summer collection featured the Maasai shuka, which they later patented.

The Maasai, known for their red-checked shukas, fine beadwork and proud warrior history, are an attractive icon for firms wishing to establish particular brand values.

Light Years IP, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that more than 1,000 companies, including Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Jaguar Land Rover and Maasai Barefoot Technology have used Maasai imagery or iconography to project their brand according to Financial Times.


To press his case Ole Tialolo is now working with Position Business, a spin-off whose founder, Ron Layton, helped Ethiopian coffee growers build trademark protection around their premium coffee.

Mr Layton estimates that royalties claims by the Maasai are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In his estimation, they could eventually use their brand to strike deals across a range of products from fashion to vehicles, in which a typical licensing fee would be 5 per cent of the retail value.

The Maasai recently struck their first deal with Koy Clothing, a UK retail company, which has agreed to pay a license fee for clothes based on Maasai designs.

The Maasai are hoping to persuade other companies using their brand to pay a royalty. Maasai Barefoot Technology, a Singaporean company, is one of the Maasai's first targets.

It markets a popular brand of sports shoe whose sole design is intended to build muscle by emulating the Maasai gait over soft ground.

The Maasai are not the first community to seek to protect and profit from their brand. Aboriginal Australians have, after years of struggle, established protocols that mean they are now routinely paid fees when companies use their image or ancestral lands for commercial or marketing.


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