Africa loses millions to biopiracy

Published on 05/11/2008

By Mwangi Muiruri

African countries lose billions of shillings to multinational allied ‘pirates’ who specialise in pilfering plants with medicinal and economic value, finds a report by Third World Network, a biotechnology and development organisation.

“The biological resources have medicinal, agricultural, horticultural and cosmetic value but there is no evidence that African countries benefit from the profits multinationals make,” states the report.

And there are myriad examples. For instance, the widely used Diabetes Drug — Acarbose — is produced from microbes dominant in Rift Valley forests and the substance used in faded jeans is derived from an indigenous plant that was pirated from Kenya’s caustic lakes by British scientists working for a US firm.

According to market researchers, in the last year alone, the company made more than Sh73 million from sales of the substance to detergent makers and textile firms. As the debate centres on the urgency for African countries to patent their ecological resources, lack of legislative know-how, uncommitted researchers and disinterested governments has resulted in inaction.


The dearth of research on the continent is captured by Pascal Database statistics which show that Africa has about 1,000 full time researchers, producing an average of 500 scientific papers annually. This translates to 35 researchers per one million inhabitants and 17 scientific papers per one million people. “Kenyans apply for about 25 patent every year but less than five are granted. That is why we almost lost the rights to Kikoi and Kiondo,” says Ms Sheila Maina, Research and Training Manager at the African Technology Policy Studies Network.

In Libya, a plant called Artemisia judaica has been pirated by a British firm and used to develop a diabetes drug. The report also lists Gambia as a victim since an immuno-suppressant drug being developed by a major international pharmaceutical company originates from a compound found in termite hills in the country.

And a HIV/Aids drug was extracted from mycobacterium discovered in mud samples from the Lango district of central Uganda.

Some infection-fighting drugs are made from amoeba found in Mauritania while an anti-diarrhoea vaccine was developed from microbes found in Egypt. A slug barrier made from a Somalia species of myrrh is also being sold internationally by Western firms.


The issue is whether profits made from products made out of the continent biodiversity by multinationals should be shared between the companies and the countries from where the plants and other valuable vegetative substances have been stolen. “It is no longer acceptable for White explorers 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,” says Mr Beth Burrows, president of the Edmonds Institute, a non-profit body specialising intellectual property rights, in the report.

In an annex to the report, then Brazilian ambassador to London, Jose Mauricio Bustani, describes the theft as ‘a silent disease’. Now, on focus is the British drug firm, Phytopharm that has attempted to share out economic benefits of an active ingredient in a plant called hoodia-a cactus-like African plant used by the San Bushmen in South Africa to ward off hunger before hunting trips in South Africa.

The company has entered into an agreement with the San Bushmen to be sharing out profits accrued.

Dr Kennedy Ondimu of Igad argues that the drive to exploit the natural resources, is the root cause of many conflicts in the region.

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