Europe and America has always stolen from Africa using deception or force. In the 90s, Africa was pressed hard by the West to adopt a legislation recognizing foreign patents. This meant no country can steal another country’s knowledge and natural resources.
This law prevents Africa countries from using the discoveries and knowledge of great inventors and innovators, and the natural resources from western countries without paying a huge price, but allows western countries to use Africa’s traditional knowledge passed down from generation to generation and natural resources without the consent of the country of origin and without paying for the knowledge or resources.
Africa’s Traditional Knowledge and Biodiversity
Africa is a land of abundant natural resources. Its biodiversity is one of its largest assets. Africans carry in them valuable knowledge collected over many centuries, of plants, seeds, algae, soil etc, that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Much of its natural and human resources lies largely untapped. The very few that’s has been tapped have not been done on full industrial scale, because Africa has not yet developed its secondary and tertiary industries. Unlike developed countries, Africa lacks innovative indigenous companies with a vision to research and develop local discoveries that can be brought to the market.
Western Countries’ Rules on Research and Development
Europe and America have an advanced Research and Development (R & D). To encourage research, patents were introduced long ago to ensure that anyone developing an original idea would have a monopoly on the fruit of that research for a fixed period.
In the 1990s, they went further to establish an international law called TRIPS: Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which includes recognizing foreign patent.
In theory, the idea is that companies from one country can not rip off the ideas and products of companies from another.
In practice, it is different. For instance with western drugs are usually expensive especially the patent or branded ones. When the patent of a drug expires, any company can produce a copy called a generic drug without any license from the inventor.
These generic drugs are often as effective as, but much cheaper than, brand-name drugs. Because of their low price, generic drugs are often the only medicines that the poorest can access. By signing the TRIP law, Africa countries gave the West control over the amount of generics African countries can get access to and the West has always used this to control international trade to their own advantage.
In theory, also, no one can steal anyone’s else’s natural resources: there have to be proved of an original step in the research and a new discovery. But in practice, African knowledge, ideas or products are still in their natural form and have not been patented for personal or monetary gain.
No pharmaceutical company in the West want to market a strange yellow-flowered tropical plant from southern Nigeria which the Esan people claims cures acute Eczema when the leave of the plant is squeezed and it’s juice used to scrub the skin; they would rather want to isolate the compound that kills the Eczema and make it a constituent of an anti-fungal cream already in the market.
The West Stealing from Africa
The San people of the Kahalari desert long discovered a cactus plant that can keep you going when you want a bite to eat.
A South African company sold the right to the active components of the cactus – a Hoodia compound, to an American company called Phytopharm which further sold the license to the American drug company Pfizer in the late 1990s, planning to make such drug.
When the Sans found out they were understandably angry. After much media backlash, there was an agreement to give the Sans who are the true owner of the intellectual property a meagre 0.003% of retail sales.
In another patent dispute in 2007, an enzyme was found in Lake Nakuru in Kenya. This enzyme survives in a caustic environment, softens fabric, and eats up indigo dye, making this enzyme very useful and valuable in the textile industry. A U.S biotech company, Genencor, patented the enzyme. Guess what, the Kenya Wildlife Service argues it never approved access for the research in Lake Nakuru nor received any benefit from the discovery.
Western company’s also patented Brazzein, a protein 500 time sweeter than sugar from a plant in Gabon and an extract from Aloe ferox plant from Lesotho, which helps lighten the skin.
The biggest robbery was carried out by a Dutch company, Health and Performance Food International bv. (HPFI) in 2007. This company patented Teff, an Ethiopian indigenous gluten-free hardy grain used for making Injera, a flatbread which is a staple food in Ethiopia.
In practice, the teff patent excludes all others, including Ethiopia itself, from utilizing teff for most forms of relevant production and marketing in the countries where it is granted. The patent was also filed in the USA and Japan. Ethiopia was sidelined and the country found itself squeezed out of the position to use its own teff genetic resources.
TRIPS legislation was forced on Africa because it suits the West industrialized, service economies of their heavy emphasis on research and development. TRIPS must be adjusted to also protect African countries, to allow African countries get a greater share of the profits made from their traditional knowledge and natural resources, as it is done in the crude oil sector.