Monday August 18 2014

Farmers can use intellectual property tools for value addition

By Edwin Tabaro

Uganda is said to be the Pearl of Africa and gifted by nature perhaps because of the fertile soils, congenial climate and friendly people - also echoed by the country’s National Anthem.

But how have we used these great gifts to enhance our productivity and have the world/markets realise that our agricultural products originate from these natural endowments.

Tourism, sports, and most of all, agriculture are the industries that would enhance these novel qualities, but how much has been done to make this possible?
Because of these natural endowments, Uganda produces very high quality pineapples, coffee, cotton and bananas.

In the area of animal husbandry, the Ankole cow, a multipurpose breed adapted to the environmental rigours of the region, tolerant against ticks and produces milk with low cholesterol levels, stands out as a pristine product for intellectual property protection.

Ironically, government programmes have undermined the breed in favour of the boran or exotic cattle, which have quantitatively more production.

The breed is now under threat from indiscriminate crossbreeding, breed substitution and lack of a systematic breed development programme.

Yet, on the other hand, modern society is seeking new, more sustainable, fairer values which has sparked off unprecedented demand for return to authenticity, to what is genuine and sustains good health.

The product chain now demands that organic or natural food products be marketed with a mechanism that emphasises genuine marketing and efficient management systems for the product. This in turn emphasises value addition and better farm gate prices.

The previously non-productive product will attract a better price as long as the system in place such as geographical indication or collective trademark certifies its origin and quality with clear labels that can be easily identified.

The danger with the failure to recognise the gifts we have is that someone will sell our products, thus depriving Ugandan farmers and government of income.

This was the case with Ethiopian coffee whose brands were for a long time registered and marketed by Starbucks as its own, until the Ethiopian government challenged it and an agreement was reached.

The government is keen on adding value to these products.

Such value addition would require that the product ought to be protected by law with a verification system to certifying its source and quality to prevent it from unfair exploitation by third parties.

The revamped Uganda Registration of Services Bureau has set up an Intellectual Property Registry, which will help in registering the rights subsisting in these products.

Intellectual property is defined as those creations of the mind in relation to which the state confers monopoly to prevent their unauthorised exploitation.

A case is made for the use of intellectual property tools to enhance value addition, which in turn will cause formal and effective protection from exploitation.

The intellectual property rights relevant to agriculture are geographical indications, plant variety rights, patents, industrial designs, trademarks, and confidential information. In the past three years, Parliament has passed the Geographical Indications Act, the Trademarks Act and the Plant Varieties Act.

These legislations are expected to kick-start an agricultural revolution for a breakthrough into the world markets if well understood and used.

They will also encourage and inspire plant breeders to develop varieties for the country and ensure food security. The use of intellectual property right for value addition will necessitate reliance on combination of legal provisions to effectively protect agriculture products on the international market.

The novel and superior quality of Ankole cow products, coffee, pineapple, and cotton can best be protected under the system of geographical indications, collective and certification marks.

The law defines them as indications, which identify goods as originating in a particular country, region or locality where a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of the goods is essentially attributable to its geographic origin.

The same law can protect handicraft industry items like bark cloth and traditional music instruments.

The system would require that the government sets up a corporate body through which certification of a product is done and branded to show its origin.

In turn this body will make regular assessments for verifying that the farmers practices and his farm implements maintains a set standard to achieve such superior quality.

Once this is done, confidence and trust will be instilled in the importer and consumer.

I must emphasise that the system requires high levels of organisation on the part of the farmers with the cooperation of government. Perhaps this will require the rejuvenation of the cooperative movement.

Collective and certification marks operate quite the same way as geographical indications.

If this is not done, the country and Africa at large will continue to suffer from wrongful use of the superior quality of their products, which is contrary to honest practices in industry and trade.

Examples of successful geographical indications in Africa include Ethiopian coffee marketed by Starbucks under the brands Harrar, Yirgacheffee and Sidamo; the Oku White honey of Cameroon, the Zanzibar cloves Rooibos Teas of South Africa, among others.

Mr Tabaro is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda.