Fair plant variety rights in Africa
How an Intellectual Property approach can advance fair plant variety rights in Sub-Saharan Africa – without the threat of a prohibition on exchanging seeds.
Implementing Intellectual Property rights can stimulate the commercial seed sector as well as crop innovations in developing countries, but it can also lead to small farmers no longer having access to seeds. This project designed an IP approach that is fair to all stakeholders. Policymakers, businesses, civil society organisations (including farmers’ organisations, researchers from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Netherlands) and relevant international organisations were involved in the project.
Intellectual Property rights (IP) are aimed at stimulating innovation by granting an exclusive right to commercial exploitation. IP systems are continuously being expanded, both in terms of the number of countries that use them and in terms of the topics to which these rights apply. If IP systems are implemented effectively, more advanced technologies could become available for developing countries. However, this also raises the ethical dilemma of who will benefit from the different types of Intellectual Property rights and whether the division of costs and benefits is fair.
Commercial seed sector
This project examined the role of Intellectual Property rights in innovation systems that contribute to improved seed varieties in developing countries. The research team has developed an IP approach that:
- stimulates plant breeding and promotes the commercial seed sector; but also
- gives small farmers in developing countries the freedom to exchange seeds of protected varieties among themselves and to sell them.
We looked at different seed systems for commercial crops and crops that contribute to food security and the role that different IP systems (patents, plant variety rights, etc.) play in such innovation systems. This involved case studies and approaches with a strong link to the Netherlands, such as seed potatoes and the Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) programme.
The outcomes of this project are useful for African countries that wish to introduce or expand Intellectual Property rights and for managers of farmers’ organisations in Africa and elsewhere who want to promote poor farmers’ access to their innovative crops.
The licensing strategies of public research institutes and patent holders in Kenya, South Africa and the Netherlands were studied in this project. There appears to be relatively little knowledge about licensing strategies for humanitarian applications in Kenya and South Africa, so they are not often applied in these countries. These licensing strategies could, for example, be used to facilitate access to protected innovations in the seed sector for humanitarian purposes.
The topic proved to be highly controversial. There are strong differences of opinion between supporters and opponents of Intellectual Property rights on seeds, and a lack of mutual understanding. Moreover, policy development for the protection of Intellectual Property rights in many countries is not a transparent process. Creating mutual understanding and acceptance in a process involving all stakeholders is a prerequisite for successful implementation of an effective and balanced system of Intellectual Property rights in developing countries. The research project actively contributed to this by organising meetings and initiating partnerships.
Current versus future impact
One of the findings of the project is that the current impact of plant variety rights on the accessibility of improved plant varieties for small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa is limited. This is because:
- few countries have an effective plant-variety rights system;
- there are relatively few applications for plant variety rights for (non-hybrid) varieties of food crops;
- in practice, these rights are not (or rarely) enforced for small farmers.
However, the potential impact of plant variety rights (and patent rights) in the future is huge, because:
- several regional organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. ARIPO, SADC) are developing and implementing a plant-variety rights system in accordance with UPOV conventions;
- this system will largely prohibit the exchange and sale of stored seeds; whereas
- the vast majority of small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa (and developing countries in general) depend on this for their seed supply.
Sub-Sahara Africa, developing countries, small-scale farmers, licensing strategy, licensing strategy, seed sector, intellectual property rights, patents, justice, plant variety rights, plant breeders' rightsOfficial project title: