Ethiopia: Dutch Company Using Scientific Jargon to Avoid Teff Patent Right Controversy

Photo: Wikimedia
A Falasha villager in Wolleka shows how injera, using a teff flour batter, is made.

.Ethiopia to file charges at Int'l Court of Arbitration

While the Dutch company Health and Performance Food International (HPFI) has taken over the patent right for teff - a grain indigenous to Ethiopia - using scientific jargons and speculations, Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office said it is now preparing to file charges against the company at the International Court of Arbitration (ICA).

As there were no compiled and well organized documents about the tiny Ethiopian grain (teff), HPFI has registered the patent right for the preparation of teff products in five countries since 2003, the Office stated.

Ethiopian legal experts have been collecting and scrutinizing documents to file charges at ICA, since the negotiation between Ethiopia and HPFI bore no result, Office Director General Ermias Yemanebirhan told The Ethiopian Herald.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is also providing technical supports for Ethiopia to reclaim the patent right for its indigenous grain, Ermias added.

The European Patent Company should not have given the patent right for the company, now effective in five European countries for the fact that teff is originated in Ethiopian between 4000 and 1000 BC as traditional documents indicate, Ermias said.

"For someone from Europe, in a different continent, to come and say we patented teff and the copyright is ours" an Ethiopian Kassahun Gebrehana, owner of the Little Addis Café in Maboneng, Johannesburg, shakes his head and quoted by Mail and the Guardian as saying, "Have they been eating it for centuries? We have."

Kasahun said it's impossible to overstate the significance of teff and injera (a type of bread made of teff) to Ethiopian cuisine and culture. "We are addicted to teff. We cannot say we eat food without injera."

For Ermias, the stolen patent right is not only of the dead material but also other three hybrid teff species including Adina and Ayana which are also indigenous to Ethiopia.

"It is a 'bad patent'. Hence, it has to be nullified."

While Ethiopia is the origin of teff, the Dutch Company had to come up with some other things different from the traditional knowledge in Ethiopia if it is to hold the patent legally, the DG stated.

Eventually, due to the efforts by the Ethiopian government as of yet, Japan and the US America have rejected the patent right of the Dutch Company over teff, according to Ermias.

It's about time that the situation changes, said Kasahun.

"You cannot 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."

Furthermore, Ermias said that the world knows now days that teff is nutritionally rich grain. Injera is most common food across Ethiopia and getting popularity across the world.

"The patent holder does not even know traditional teff products preparation, than preparing ice cream, macaroni and pasta using teff."

So far, negotiations bore no result. "We will continue the naming and shaming campaign. And we are ready for the third step, which is to file charges at IAC, Ermias said.

"There is window of hope for Ethiopia to regain teff patent right if we file the charges in Germany. And the issue of teff is currently an international issue."

A 2005 agreement between Ethiopia and the Dutch company HPFI gave HPFI access to 12 Ethiopian teff varieties, which it was to use for developing new teff-based products for the European market. In return, the company was to share substantial benefits with Ethiopia, according to the Ethiopian Biodiversity Conservation.

HPFI managed to obtain a broad patent on the processing of teff flour in Europe, covering ripe grain, as well as fine flour, dough, batter and non-traditional teff products. This patent, along with other values of the company, had then been transferred to new companies set up by the same owners, sources indicated.

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