Ethiopia Doesn’t Own The Patent To Teff – No One Does Now

There’s a slight misunderstanding concerning a court case over teff, the national grain of Ethiopia. There was a dodgy little deal some years back over a patent to it and or methods of making flour from it. That patent has now been invalidated. This does not, though, mean that Ethiopia now owns that patent to teff. It means that no one owns any patent as it has been invalidated. This is good news still, as it means that Ethiopia can export teff to Europe but it’s still not true that the country now owns that now no longer extant valid patent.

One of the patents under discussion is this one.

The invention relates to flour of Eragrostis tef and to products comprising this flour. The invention provides flour of a grain belonging to the genus Eragrostis, preferably Eragrostis tef, characterized in that the falling number of the grain at the moment of grinding is at least 250, preferably at least 300, more preferably at least 340, most preferably at least 380. The invention further provides a food product or luxury food product comprising a flour according to the invention.

A method of making flour can of course be patented. But not if people have already been using that method for some time to make flour. Which is the grounds for the decision:

Health and Performance Food International, a Dutch Company has been claiming patent right over teff for several years.The company had also obtained patent right in Italy, Belgium, Austria and England. The company bought the ownership right from another company who had a deal to work with Ethiopia but went bankrupt, according to a report by Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation(EBC). The court ruling says that there is no patent right over Teff flour for it is a product of customary preparation. Fitsum Arega, former Investment Commissioner who is recently appointed as Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States, says that social media campaign on Teff patent was essential to restore Ethiopia’s ownership right.

As you can see, customary preparation, you can’t patent something that people have been doing for centuries. Well, actually, you can, there’s that story of the bloke patenting the wheel but such mistakes fail as soon as they are challenged.

However, that last para there is wrong. If the patent fails it means that no one owns it for no one can own it. That’s what the finding is – it’s a customary process, no one can own it.

So, the Dutch company doesn’t own the patent on teff flour but doesn’t own it for a reason that means no one can own it, not even Ethiopia.

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Presumably the aim of the ‘social media campaign’ would be to revoke the recent court ruling and replace it with one which allocates the patent rights to the People of Ethiopia*

* By which I mean the current ruling establishment of Ethiopia**

** By which I mean the Western companies who will pay good money to make use of the Teff resource….