The Ethiopians' strategy on patenting their coffee could show the way to others mired in poverty when Western corporations are striking gold over their own products. One key aspect of the Ethiopian experience is that they worked from within the modern intellectual property system to help poor farmers.
"Ethiopia's initiative shines a new light on such arrangements between powerful buyers and their developing world suppliers and is trend setting," said Ron Layton, founder of Light Years IP, a Washington-based not-for-profit organization that says it is dedicated to the use of intellectual property rights to help the poorest countries.
Traditionally intellectual property rights have been used to benefit international corporations and have been blamed for keeping life-saving medicines out of the hands of needy people.
Light Years estimates that 90-95 percent of product value is taken by the distribution chain of products that come from poor nations. Only a few producers have any real control over their products.
But last year Ethiopia set out on a mission to challenge that. Its coffee sector launched a plan to take better advantage of its intellectual property rights.
The poor African nation first applied for the trademark registrations of its specialty coffee brands in the United States, Canada, Japan and other countries. It succeeded in registering several, including Harar, Sidamo and Yirgacheffe.
It also began negotiating with coffee roasters to sign agreements acknowledging the right of Ethiopians to control these brands.
But the U.S. coffee franchise Starbucks dragged its feet and declined to give Ethiopian coffee farmers the right to control their coffee trademarks, even though it had originally promized to do so.
This prompted aggressive campaigns against the Seattle-based company.
Anti-poverty campaigners criticized the cash-laden Starbucks for repeatedly ignoring its social responsibility pledges, running newspaper ads, making phone calls and firing off mass emails. Thousands of activists worldwide took part in the crusade to pressure the coffee company, one of the world's largest and most profitable.
Finally Starbucks agreed this week to sign the deal, which now lets Starbucks use and promote Ethiopian coffee brands in markets both where trademarks exist for the brands as well as where they may not.
The deal is expected to generate more income for Ethiopian farmers.
Currently farmers get only a fraction of the export price when retail prices for specialty coffees can be anywhere from five to 15 times export prices.
Under the new deal, farmers instead would be able to base their export prices more closely on the retail value of their coffees.
"This agreement provides cause to be very optimistic about the future of the Ethiopian coffee industry," said Getachew Mengistie, Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office Director General.
Development agencies also greeted the deal as a major victory.
"This should help improve the lives of millions of poor farmers, allowing them to send their children to school and access healthcare," Offenheiser of Oxfam said.
There are 15 million people in Ethiopia who are dependent on the country's coffee sector. Coffee is among the most valuable commodities in Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries.
Africa is the birthplace of coffee and produces arguably the most exotic taste profile of any coffees in the world.
Starbucks purchases approximately five percent of its high-quality Arabica coffee from African countries of origin such as Ethiopia and Kenya.
One of the world's wealthiest companies, Starbucks says it plans to open at least 2,400 new stores on a global basis in fiscal 2007 as well as 1,700 stores in the United States.
Last year, the company saw a 22 percent increase in total net revenues to $7.8 billion, the equivalent of the entire Gross Domestic Product of Ethiopia, a country of 71 million people, in 2000. Its GDP in 2005 stood at $11.8 billion.
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Albion Monitor June
29, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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