Kenya loses Sh70m to biopirates

By MWANGI MUIRURI

It now emerges that Rift Valley residents have, in the last two years, lost more than Sh70 million to western piracy targeting indigenous plants. This follows revelations that the detergent behind the faded jeans' fashion industry is derived from an indigenous plant that was pirated from the Rift Valley's caustic lakes.

International press now have bared how a British scientists from Leicester University worked with US firm Genencor to patent-utilise without consent, a microbe that lives in the caustic lakes of Kenya's Rift Valley.

It was discovered that when jeans are washed with the "stolen". microbe results in the production of an enzyme that fades the indigo dye thus giving them a natural faded look.

According to market monitoring research in the fashion industry, it is estimated that for the last one year, the company has made more than $1m ( Sh73 million) in sales to detergent makers and textile firms. The revelation now depicts that, it is not just in the world of medicine and horticulture where the Western multinationals have raked in obscene profits through pirating Africa's rich flora, but the exploitative vice has now permeated the fashion industry.

This form of new thievery of Africa's resources falls under the category of biopiracy. The US-based Edmonds Institute recently published a report listing more than 30 example of western medical, horticultural and cosmetic products it alleged had been pirated' from Africa.

An analysis of these patents by The Observer reveals that the Syngenta patent is one of seven granted by the UK authorities that now face accusations of biopiracy. These include; a diabetes drug being developed by a British firm that comes from the Libyan plant Artemisia judaica, an immunosuppressant drug being developed by GlaxoSmithKline that originates from a compound found in a termite hill in Gambia, a treatment for HIV/Aids taken from mycobacteria discovered in mud samples from the Lango district of central Uganda, infection-fighting drugs made from amoebas in Mauritius and Venezuela, an anti-diarrhoea vaccine developed from Egyptian microbes and a slug barrier made from a Somalian species of myrrh.

Although the development of such drugs is widely welcomed and the companies involved deny the accusations of biopiracy, there is a growing debate about whether profits should be shared between the pirating western companies and the African countries of origin of the plants used.

Beth Burrows, president of the Edmonds Institute, a non-profit body specialising in education about intellectual property rights, in an interview said: Times have changed. It is no longer acceptable for the great white explorer to trawl across Africa or South America taking what they want for their own commercial benefit. It is no more than a new form of colonial pillaging. As there are internationally recognised rights for oil, so there should be for indigenous plants and knowledge.'

In another interview with The Observer newspapers, the Brazilian ambassador to London, Jose Mauricio Bustani, described biopiracy as a silent disease'. He said: It is hardly detectable, it frequently does not leave traces and is an elusive activity perpetrated and often abetted by many well-known multinational companies. The Observer had, five years ago, revealed how the British drug firm, Phytopharm, had patented an active ingredient in a plant called hoodia in South Africa.

Hoodia is a cactus-like African plant used by the San bushmen in South Africa to ward off hunger before hunting trips.

Phytopharm has since linked with Unilever to market this product and currently is being developed as a diet drug. Unilever has agreed to pay up to £21m (Sh1.533 billion) to Phytopharm, which originally claimed the San tribe was extinct.

Through unrelenting activism from international human rights organisations and lawyers, the San community has managed to be incorporated into a fragile benefit-sharing agreement that will see it collect a small share of any profits realised. But smarting from the activism that has seen him lose maximum profits, Phytopharm's chief executive, Richard Dixey, strongly rejects the claims of biopiracy and accuses campaigners of engaging in bad activism. He says that biopiracy is such an emotive term for a highly complex issue.

He argues that many of the said plants grow in more than one place and have been used by many people throughout history. "It is almost impossible to discover who owns' them" he says.

Further, Dixey argues that it takes a huge effort and a lot of money from recognising a particular profit property in a plant and developing it into a drug.

"It can cost between $200m and $500m. If companies could not get the protection of a patent then they simply would not bother thus the said "owners". of such plants never getting a chance to even realise the financial importance of such plants. " Then what would happen is that the traditional knowledge of these communities would die out with the people or be lost as they become westernised,' Dixey says.

James Shikwati, director, Inter-Region Economic network (IREN-Kenya) writes, "Tack of systematic recording and beyond a collective level of property right recognition, robbed many innovators in Africa the ability to have their ideas improved upon and made economically viable. More so, the lack of a property rights regime that could measure to the countries that later colonised Africa made it easier for both physical and intellectual property to be seized by the occupying powers."

He challenges the third world countries ought to enforce intellectual property protection for its own good while at the same time allowing more innovators to compete in their own countries in order facilitate affordable prices.

"Developed countries have been known to use protection of property rights as a barrier to trade especially in the field of medicine," says the economist.