In 2005, the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity and Conservation partnered up with the Dutch company Health and Performance Food International (HPFI) to marketize one of Ethiopia’s most valuable staples, the teff grain – the main ingredient found in injera bread, now widely dubbed a cosmopolitan ‘superfood’.
The agronomist Jans Roojsen, who spearheaded the project under HPFI, applied for the patent in 2003 and gained it in 2007, thus acquiring the rights to market, sell or import the grain as they wanted without the Ethiopian partnership – meaning that HPFI alone had the rights for the teff grain.
In the beginning, this was seen as a profitable exchange. The Dutch were to be supplied with grains and indigenous foods to market in Europe and local producers were supposed to be paid for their stock, benefiting from a so-called ‘development fund’.
But, the success of the grain never materialized and HPFI went bankrupt in 2009. The agreement with Ethiopia no longer existed and the country only managed to get €4,000 (USD$ 4,479.00) in profits over the five years of cooperation.
Eventually, according to a report made by a Norwegian environmental research institute in 2012, the founders of the Dutch project bought back the patent on teff for €60,000 (USD$67,000).
The report calls the move a clear case of ‘biopiracy’, writing that ‘Ethiopia found itself discarded, prevented from using its own genetic resources in several European countries.’