How did Ethiopia lose intellectual property rights for teff?
There has been a battle for the ownership of teff since 2003, when Dutchman Jans Roosjen registered himself with the European Patent Office and copywriters in the USA and Japan, as the “inventor” of teff flour and its associated by-products. But how could a foreigner possibly claim to have invented a food that has been around for millennia?
In the early 2000s a Dutch company headed by Roosjen called Health and Performance Food International set out to make teff the next global superfood, after quinoa and kale. They negotiated deals with various Ethiopian governmental organisations that would allow them to develop and market the product in Europe, and in exchange send back portions of the profit back to Ethiopia. In the process the company acquired blanket patents for teff flour and all its by-products including any cookies, cakes, and even injera that would be produced from it! These patents prevent any other country, including Ethiopia, from distributing teff products anywhere the copyright is held.
Health and Performance Food International never quite succeeded in making teff the next superfood. And in the meantime, the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office is doing everything it can both legally and diplomatically, to regain rights to teff.
By Nnenna Onuoha