It is too late for Ethiopia – which takes credit for the discovery of the caffeinated red beans in its highlands a thousand years ago – to patent the invention of coffee, but it is now doing the next best thing.
Working with cooperatives and exporters, the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office has secured trademark registrations in more than 30 countries for its three most popular brands of fine coffee: Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe.
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By insisting that distributors have to buy licences to sell them, it has doubled coffee farmers’ incomes in a short time and protects them in the long term.
The same principle applies to Kenya’s Milima tea, which aficionados regard with the same reverence as India’s Darjeeling.
Although the quality of Sudan’s Barakat cotton ranks with Pima or Egyptian cotton, its farmers receive a fraction of its retail value.
A vigorous campaign to promote and protect the Barakat brand, which sells at about a 50% discount to Pima cotton, could sharply increase earnings for growers and exporters.
Shrouded in legal jargon, the fight hardly seems the stuff of national liberation struggles. It calls for clever strategy and patient negotiations with organisations sporting an alphabet soup of acronyms – WTO, WIPO, ARIPO and OAPI to name a few.
But the fight is of critical importance for Africa’s future.
Unless governments take determined steps to secure IP rights for their countries’ products, flora and fauna, art and culture, the continent stands to lose billions of dollars a year as the rest of the world protects what is known as the intangible value of production.
This poses a big challenge to African economies.
The clear message is that simply boosting output for a small profit will be a lengthy and arduous route to growth.
The current downturn in almost all commodity prices tells its own story.
But innovation backed by IP strategies can help African farmers and entrepreneurs market the distinctiveness of their products and boost incomes.
Many battles are still to be fought to protect Africa’s seed varieties from rapacious agribusiness companies and to assert and protect the value of its idiosyncratic cultivation methods of oil palm, cocoa and rubber.
Equally, Ghana and Mali have to find ways to secure protection for their kente and bogolan cloth, which have been ruthlessly appropriated by manufacturers across Asia.
On the other side of the coin, Africa will have to negotiate harder for flexibility in industrialised countries’ IP regimes, especially when they literally amount to matters of life and death.
Under pressure, big pharmaceutical companies have relented a little on their refusal to allow local generic production of life-saving drugs such as anti-malarials and anti-retrovirals.
But they need to go much further, perhaps encouraged by new financing methods for critical pharmaceutical research. ●