Biopiracy, the intellectual property regime and livelihoods in Africa

Published on Pambazuka News, by Oduor Ong’wen, Oct. 6, 2010.

African countries suffer the most from the rapid trend towards the privatisation of African plants, writes Oduor Ong’wen. Even though the patented plant materials often originate in Africa, once they are patented by multinational corporations it becomes virtually impossible to access them for the public good.

Thousands of patents on African plants have been filed. These include brazzeine, a protein 500 times sweeter than sugar from a plant in Gabon; teff, the grain used in Ethiopia’s flat ‘injera’ bread; and thaumatin, a natural sweetener from a plant in West Africa. The African soap berry, the Kunde Zulu cowpea and genetic material from the west African cocoa plant also make the list. 

Increasingly, African countries are going to court over patents on their indigenous plants. The most celebrated case to date involves the Hoodia cactus from the Kalahari Desert. For centuries, the San people of southern Africa ate pieces of the cactus to stave off hunger and thirst. Analysing the cactus, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa found the molecule that curbs appetite and sold the rights to develop an anti-obesity drug to pharmaceutical company Pfizer. It could be worth billions.

The commercial development of naturally occurring biological materials, such as plant substances or genetic cell lines, by a technologically advanced country or transnational corporation without fair compensation to the peoples or nations of the developing world is one of the most serious cases of the externalisation of resources. The appropriation and patenting of nanotechnologies by corporations has more often than not worked against the best interests of humanity, especially in the less developed world.



Genetic technologies move knowledge from the public to the private domain. Therefore, increasing amounts of know-how, which would have been available freely for further innovation and product development, is either unavailable, if exclusive licenses were granted, or must be purchased. While research and development in all countries is affected by these changes, African countries suffer most, for four reasons. First, located in the periphery of research and development networks, their chance to obtain exclusive licenses first is very low. Second, TNCs have long entered the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ by creating huge patent portfolios for the sale and exchange of licenses and by creating knowledge monopolies and cross-licensing networks in which emerging industries in Africa can hardly participate. Third, while identifying and purchasing the necessary licenses is difficult and costly for any industry, African countries are particularly handicapped because they frequently have not the same informational and financial resources. Lastly, the increasing costs of patent filings and litigations required for new product developments pose a growing barrier to any research and development efforts in poor countries.

The appropriation of elements of this collective knowledge of societies into proprietary knowledge for the commercial profit of a few is one of the concerns of African communities. An urgent action is needed to protect these fragile knowledge systems through national policies and international understanding linked to IPR. The developed world wants to hear none of this. (full long text and NOTES 1 to 14).

Link: Option Biotech.

Comments are closed.