According to the European Patent Office, teff flour and associated food products were “invented” by a Dutch man named Jans Roosjen in 2003. This is despite the fact that teff has been an integral part of Ethiopian traditional food and culture for millennia.
The word “teff” is thought to originate from the Amharic word “teffa”, which means “lost”. Teff is an annual bunch grass that is endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the grain is used to make the spongy fermented pancake known as “injera” and other Ethiopian dishes. It is the most important staple crop in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Because teff is a gluten-amino acid-free grain, it was being touted as the next global superfood in the early 2000s. This is when Dutch researchers formed a company, which later became Health and Performance Food International, to explore the marketing of teff in Europe.
According to a 2012 paper by researchers Regine Andersen and Tone Winge, the company reached a deal with Ethiopia to plant and distribute teff in Europe in return for part of the profits. Although a huge demand for teff never materialised, Health and Performance Food International had already been granted patents for the production and distribution of teff in Europe. The patent was very broad and encompassed “most forms of teff flour, as well as all products that result from mixing teff flour with liquids. These include bread, pancakes, shortcake, cookies, cakes and, of course, injera,” stated an article in the Mail & Guardian newspaper.
The research paper explains the situation as follows: “The company argued that such a broad patent was required to secure investment in teff and thus also the prospect of benefit sharing with Ethiopia.
“In practice, the teff patent excludes all others, including Ethiopia itself, from utilising 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,” said Andersen and Winge.
It was not long before Ethiopia realised it had lost an important part of their heritage in an ill-gotten deal.
“A development had started whereby Ethiopia was becoming sidelined. The country found itself squeezed out of position to utilise its own teff genetic resources — for example, through co-operation with other foreign companies — in Europe and wherever else the teff patent might be granted, while at the same time losing all prospects of sharing the benefits from the use of these genetic resources.”
Ethiopia fights back
Since the revelation, the Ethiopian government has for years sought a solution to the problem. Only recently has the Office of the Attorney General made progress by filing charges at the International Court of Arbitration against the Dutch company that holds the patent.
Dr Getahun Mekuria, Ethiopia’s Minister of Science and Technology, told Members of Parliament in an address to the House of People’s Representatives last year that “over the past nine months, extensive efforts have been carried out to reclaim Ethiopia’s patent right for its teff grain. However, the Ministry has finally come to the decision that there is no alternative to seeking justice through courts to acquire Ethiopia’s patent right.
Prominent Ethiopian diplomat Fitsum Arega stated that this was unfortunately another example of an African country failing to own and protect its heritage and assets.
Ethiopia needs to reclaim one of the earliest plants its people domesticated; a plant that undoubtedly originated in that region between 4000 BC and 1000 BC. The continued controversy all stems from the continent’s continued and collective deficiency in the in-depth knowledge and understanding of intellectual property laws and rights.
A three-judge court in the Netherlands ruled a European patent for the products made of teff lacked “inventiveness,” ending a years-long controversy over who owned the ancient grain.