Beyond biopiracy

25 March 2015

Early stone tools fashioned by our hominid ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa show that innovation based on local knowledge has old roots in the continent.

This early African innovation continued in agriculture, metallurgy, medicine and textiles; and even in building techniques, design and material.

But Africa has learnt some hard lessons in properly managing its intellectual property. An often-cited case from the 1970s describes how the National Cancer Institute in the US invested in Maytenus buchananii, a plant that grows in the Simba Hills of Kenya. The institute had learnt what the local Digo communities have known for years: the plant is good for treating cancers. But the material was collected and traded without the Digo knowing – and without any acknowledgement of their knowledge, or reciprocal financial benefit.

The Intellectual (IP) Unit, based in the law faculty, advocates for development-oriented intellectual property laws and policies in Southern Africa. At the forefront is an initiative the unit coleads with the University of Ottawa's law faculty: the Open African Innovation Research & Training (Open AIR) project. Open AIR has hubs in Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya, and teams in 14 African countries, including Tunisia, Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Botswana.

At the coalface is UCT's Dr Tobias Schonwetter, who works to ensure knowledge and innovation – and the communities who create this capital – are appropriately protected through guidance as well as policy and research development. One example of this can be found in South Africa's Kukula healers, the traditional health practitioners of Bushbuckridge who hold valuable knowledge about medicinal plants; knowledge passed down through generations.

Custom doesn't allow them to share all this knowledge (some secrets are kept in families and groups), but there's much they are willing to share with the broader community; a pooling of knowledge for collaboration, protection and benefit-sharing.

This collaborative model, with its recognition of the benefits of selective openness, is somewhat different from the commercially driven Western model; yet it can protect them from biopiracy.

The Kukula case study was included in Open AIR's book, Innovation and Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa, co-edited by Schonwetter and available under an open licence.

The book is accompanied by a fascinating report that transcribes some of the project's findings into three possible scenarios for Africa's future, 20 years from now.

Some 80 Kukula healers have since formed the Kukula Traditional Health Practitioners' Association (a traditional knowledge commons), and a representative body to watch their backs, commercially speaking.

Supported by NGO Natural Justice, the Kukula Association has developed a biocultural community protocol (BCP) to govern use of their knowledge by members of the association and by outside stakeholders.

Through this the healers share their medicinal plant expertise, while ensuring their traditional knowledge is documented and not lost to the grave.

Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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Monday Monthly

Volume 34 Edition 02

25 Mar 2015

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