Ethiopia: Efforts to Claim Teff Patent Right

Ethiopia has been undertaking various efforts to claim the patent right, whether through negotiation, public campaign and the legal system.

Ten years ago, a Netherlands company got the patent right to produce teff and its products. Ethiopia has requested to acquire the patent right – which is taken by the company incongruously – with no avail. The issue didn’t get solution till now.

Dr. Melese Mario, General Director of Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute told the Amharic daily Addis Zemen that only the Netherlands Company has got the patent right to sell teff in the form of flour or cake in Germany and other five countries.

One of the smallest grains in the world, Teff is a gluten-free food, and also free from amino acid, which has increased its demand in the world. Understanding and anticipating its demand in future years, Ethiopia should utilize the opportunity to be benefited from the world market by ensuring its patent right, he added.

The patent right would enable Ethiopia to supply the product legally to European market, create opportunity to supply teff to international market, motivate farmers to produce further and help the country earn due recognition.

According to the director, the patent issue of teff represents identity cheating more than economical harm. And the issue of returning the patent right to Ethiopia should never be ignored.

Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office Acting Director Ermias Yemenebirane for his part said that European countries don’t know the fact that teff is an Ethiopian treasure; rather they recognize it as one food type of a Netherlands Company. The company is changing its name from time to time and gain patent right in some European countries to produce teff product, he adds.

He recommended the cancelation of the patent right, which the company gained in a cunning way in the first place, so that Ethiopia reclaim it as it is the origin of the grain. For this to happen, using negotiation, public campaign and patent right laws system is essential, he indicated.

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The situation to preserve teff’s genetic resource in Ethiopia is weak said Getechaw Melese, Chairperson of Parliament Science, Information and Technology Affairs Standing Committee. Even if the patent right issue has been here for ten years, Ethiopia has not been successful in this endeavor. In some foreign companies the patent right is expected to renew after two years period; so, taking this into consideration, and given that some months are remaining before companies renew the permission, Ethiopia must do all the necessary homework to pounce on this, Getachew noted.

“Efforts have been exerted to revoke the company’s ownership of the patent right in diplomatic way, but the outcome so far has been overdue and tardy.” He pointed to the role the legal system can play seeing how the Company changed its name three times to create the assumption that it sold to other company.

Now, the committee that is setup at national level should pursue the restoration of teff patent right and follow the issue attentively, he notes.

According to Dr. Melese, activities are continue to be exerted to bring the issue to an international court. Essential information, especially written documents and researches on the process of teff and its product, must be collected for the court case. It has a decisive role to win the case at the court, and to cancel the patent right which is acquired illegally, he added.

Ermias also agrees with Dr.Melese’s idea, the issue requires legal solution. Ethiopia has been undertaking various efforts to claim the patent right, whether through negotiation, public campaign and the legal system, he said. While the result of the negotiation is not satisfactory, the huge public campaign on teff has helped the world community to know teff as Ethiopian. Resolving the issue legally is the best alternative, as the issue requires bringing the question to legal system, and winning through argument Ermias indicated.

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As for Getachew, before raising the issue at international level, Ethiopia should register teff patent at national level, by going through the patent right procedure of the International Intellectual Property Institute. Still, teff is not registered by Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office; so, before exerting efforts to cancel the permission, it must be registered within the country, he stressed.

Documents indicate that getting international patent right recognition is considered as getting sole permission to sell and utilize the product. Ethiopia and Netherlands’ Health and Performance Food International agreement gave permission for the company to carry out research on twelve types of Ethiopian teff genetic.

After four years, the company stopped the job in the pretext of bankruptcy. However, it got the patent right from European intellectual property office to produce and merchandize teff in flour, pasta, biscuit and other forms. It is utilizing teff to supply its products in Netherlands, England, Italy, Belgium and Germany.

Dr. Melese indicated his dread stating how, if Ethiopia could not win the charge successfully depending on accurate information, the country will face economical and identity bankruptcy. Especially, it will cast a shadow to the hope of inventors, who spend much money to export teff, he reminded.

“If we cannot resituate the right from European company, Ethiopians who export teff in the form of injera and flour to European market would not get acceptance. This will be cause economical and social crisis.” Ermias said.

According to Getachew, Ethiopia can argue on the patent right by collecting information, and registering it at national level before the company renew its permission in different countries. For this to happen, national registration should be carried out.

Without primarily registering teff patent right at domestic level, trying to take the question to Europe or International Intellectual Property Institute has its own challenge for the country, he indicated.

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