Ethiopians had momentarily lost appetite of their national dish after years of uncertainty and controversy over its ownership following a Dutch Company patenting ‘teff’ grain, an annual bunch grass that is endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea and used to make the spongy fermented pancake known as “injera” and other Ethiopian dishes.
The International Court of Arbitration has now ruled against the claim to processing teff by the Dutch teff patent holder “Ancient Grain” as null and void.
A three-judge court ruled that the patent for the products made of teff lacked “inventiveness,” ending a years-long controversy over who owned the ancient grain.
Teff is the world’s smallest grain and comes in a gluten-amino acid-free grain, a quality which continues to attract worldwide acclaim and was even being touted as the next global superfood in the early 2000s.
This ‘rare quality’ is perhaps what attracted the attention of Dutch researchers who formed a company, which later became Health and Performance Food International, to explore the possibility of 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.
However, 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 included bread, pancakes, shortcake, cookies, cakes and, of course, injera,”
So, 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,” said the research papers.
The word “teff” is thought to originate from the Amharic word “teffa”, which means “lost” and was at the risk of getting lost literally, until the International Court of Arbitration came to its rescue.
Ethiopia is believed to be the first country to domesticate the teff grain across its highlands between 4,000 BC and 1,000 BC.
Since the revelation, the Ethiopian government has been fighting for years to restore the grain to its rightful owner, the people of Ethiopia.
In 2018, 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.
The International Court of Arbitration decision will now enable Ethiopia to supply the product legally to the European market, an opportunity that will definitely motivate farmers to produce more and thereby help the country earn due recognition.
According to the Federal Attorney General, the decision is critical to support Ethiopia’s effort in preparing a proper legal claim on the Dutch company under The Hague.
The Attorney General has stated that Ethiopia will sue the company to ensure its full ownership of Teff.
The ‘Teff patent issue’, however, stems from a larger ticking time bomb of the continent’s continued and collective deficiency in the in-depth knowledge and understanding of intellectual property laws and rights.