Biopiracy: Looting African Biodiversity

My grandmother used to like trying out home remedies that ease pain before opting for the orthodox medicine option. I specifically remember the Dama Kese (Qcimum sp.) leaves that she mixes with coffee to ease the effects of a  fever and flu and the feto(Lepidium sativum) seeds that she recommends for almost anything. Thank goodness, I never had tapeworm, so I never had to try the drink that she prepares from Kosso leaves, which is extremely bitter. Her concoction consists of different plants and seeds whose botanical name I do not know yet.

What interest me today to mention my grandma’s skills is related to her favourite medicinal plants I aforementioned above.  In a report released in 2006 by Jay McGown, the two plants are mentioned among some of the biodiversity and knowledge resource that Africa has lost as a result of ‘biopiracy’. Tena Adam, Kosso, Dama Kese and Biribra are common names in Ethiopia used as multipurpose medicinal plants that common people use to treat a range of diseases. According to the aforementioned report, the indigenous knowledge related with these plants is plundered from Ethiopian people by a US researcher, who patented the ‘invention’ as his own.

Another indigenous resource that Ethiopia is in danger of losing is ‘Teff’ (Eragrostis tef), a grain used to make the stable food known as injera. Teff is in danger of being patented by a Netherlands company. Teff has been proved to be a solution for obesity, which could be one of the reasons why obesity is a rare case in Ethiopia. Netherlands’ interest in the grain could also be in part responsible for the incredible increase of Teff’s price that has quadrupled in the past few years, making it hard for average Ethiopian families to feed themselves.

When it comes to this daylight plunder of African biodiversity, the aforementioned cases are just a tip of the iceberg.  The cases are many and come from different areas of the continent. McGown says multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnological companies have been acquiring illegal access to African resources, which they have used to produce their patented products.

Kenya, particularly, is branded in the article as the biggest loser in this area. A German company Bayer allegedly acquired a strain of Bacteria from Lake Ruiru of Kenya to develop and patent a drug for diabetes type II, which lavished the company with $379 million profit only in 2004. Another plant that is used as medicine for diabetes by Libyan and Egyptian traditional healers is patented by Phytopharm plc of Cambridge of UK, as a ‘new’ invention by the company. Another example of looted Kenyan resource is the microbes stolen from Kenya’s Rift Valley by Genencor International, a US based company. According to the report, these microbes generated an annual profit of around $3.4 million, used as industrial components to produce blue faded jeans and other detergents.

The list goes on and on. Even the famous seeds, well known in Congo for their miracle in improving sexual performance, are now patented by the Canadian company Option Biotech as an impotence treatment called ‘Biovigora’. Infection Fighting Amoeba from Mauritius, Hoodia- an appetite suppressant plant from South Africa, Kokori fruits for cosmetics from Nigeria, cancer fighting bitter leaf from Sub-Saharan Africa are some of the biopircay cases included in the report. Egypt, Gambia, Namibia, Congo and many West and Southern African nations are sited as biodiversity looting by the Western Multinationals for medicinal, cosmetics, agricultural, horticultural and many other purposes.

Other than its biodiversity, we know well that artefacts, historical documents, monuments and many other valuables are allegedly taken from the continent. For instance, most of us do not realize that without the coltan from Congo, most of us wouldn’t have enjoyed our chitchats in our Nokia, Motorola or Ericson cell phones.

The controversy about these facts concerning African wealth is not about using the resources but rather on benefit sharing. African people who are the rightful owner of these resources and knowledge are staying the poorest of the poor, while the multinational companies get loaded with unbelievable profits. While the fact remains that Africa continues to be the number one source of wealth in our world, Africans are rather insulted as beggars, who survive on aid and who contribute nothing to the World. An example could be an article written by the Irish journalist Kevin Myers, who had the guts to title his article as ‘Africa is giving nothing to anyone — apart from AIDS’.

However, Africans ourselves are also to be blamed for our loss. Our governments don’t move a flinch to protect our resources, at least not before it is too late. And in most cases, government people are part and parcel of the thievery. The limited opportunity for scientific research is also another reason that limits African scientists potential to study African resources. Mostly, African scientists have to depend on foreign grants to carry out expensive researches that may open ways for their ideas to be easily copied and plundered. A case in point is an Ethiopian scientist Aklilu Lemma, who developed the Endod (soapberry) plant as a cure for bilharzias. Endod is used as an alternative soap, which is how Ethiopian mothers discovered that they could used the plant to protect children from water born diseases. The University of Toledo awarded Aklilu with an honourable degree for his work, but only to apply for a patent for the work in the university’s name later on.

On the other hand, our education system that is mostly ‘eurocentric’ doesn’t help in producing resourceful generations that create and research their indigenous resources. Today’s African generation has lost the key in believing in our own heritage and knowledge. We prefer to buy and use foreign products while we look down on ours. Our eyes are blind to see the magnificence and the wealth in our artefacts, traditional medicines, clothes, designs, hair style and what not. I remember some years ago in Ethiopia, we abandoned hair braiding claiming it was meant for small girls and rural women. But once Alicia Keys came out in her first album graced with braids, all the ladies in Addis Ababa started braiding their hair even for office use and important occasions.

Whatever the field, be it fashion or medicine, the elite African fails to see the immense resources in our indigenous knowledge, which is the reason why others are stealing or appropriating or re-branding the resources as their own right under our eyes. Unless we fix our educational system that fail to be ‘Afrocentric’ in the very ‘Afrocentric’ environment, Africa is and still will continue to be the looser continent in this world, where wealth distribution is not and will never be fair.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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