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How Ethiopia won a battle that quashed a Dutch patent on its native grain

February 12, 2019 at 09:00 am | Foodie Friday

Ismail Akwei

Ismail Akwei | Head of Content

February 12, 2019 at 09:00 am | Foodie Friday

Injera flatbread and the Teff grain

It didn’t happen in 1909 or 1943, but in 2003 when a Dutchman, Jans Roosjen, secured a patent on the processing of Ethiopia and Eritrea’s indigenous teff grain which is a staple found in most of their foods including the injera flatbread.

Teff is an ancient grain from the two African countries which is processed into flour and has a lot of health benefits. The growing population of Ethiopians and Eritreans in Europe made the grain and its flour very high in demand globally.

However, the Dutchman’s patent meant Ethiopia could not export the flour to the Netherlands and other companies could not process the grain because of Roosjen’s legal rights to its processing. He is legally listed as “the inventor” of the processed grain.

Ethiopia has been battling with intermittent famine over the years and teff was one of the staples that were banned from export. The country lifted its export ban on teff in 2015, a year after a Dutch baking ingredients company, Bakels Senior NV, filed a patent dispute at a Hague court against Jans Roosjen to be able to process the grain, legal documents state.

In November 2018, the long battle came to an end silently with the Hague court ruling that “the claim to processing teff by patent holder is null and void in the Netherlands,” announced the Ethiopian Embassy in the Netherlands in February 2019 after an Ethiopian diplomat tweeted about the victory.

“Thank you all. I just learned that The Court of The Hague ruled against the #Teff patent holder. This is great news. I hope we can learn from this that our national assets must be protected by Ethiopians & friends of Ethiopia,” tweeted Fitsum Arega who is the current Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States.

The embassy explained that the reason for the delay in announcing the victory was that “the time for appeal was still running. As no appeal was made, the verdict is now final.”

Despite being a victory for the other Dutch company that filed the case in 2014, it is also a victory for Ethiopia as it can now have access to the Netherlands market.

Meanwhile, the original patent holder of the Ethiopian staple is still the Dutchman, Jans Roosjen, and it will take another legal battle for Ethiopia to lay claims to the production and processing of its indigenous grain.

Fitsum Arega had said that the legal battle was “an issue of our inability to own our national assets in the international legal system. We need to defend it.”

Ethiopia is one of many other countries that are losing rights to their indigenous products and artefacts. The Maasai tribe of East Africa won rights to its Shuka cloth which has been exploited for years by luxury fashion brands globally.

Recently, many Africans joined a campaign to reverse the Disney trademark of the Swahili phrase “Hakuna Matata” which means “No Worries” or “No Problem”.

Hakuna Matata was registered since 2003 in the United States after the release of the 1994 film, The Lion King, which made the phrase popular. This means the phrase cannot be used for commercial purposes in the country.

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