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11 February 2019

Dutch company’s patent for Ethiopian grain annulled

A long running dispute between two Dutch companies over ownership of methods for the processing of teff, a grain cultivated in Ethiopia, has been settled in the Court of The Hague.

The patent had generated significant controversy, particularly in Ethiopia, to which teff is indigenous. Fitsum Arega, Ethiopian ambassador to the US,  said that the patent was primarily “an issue of our inability to own our national assets in the international legal system”. The Ethiopian government was not a party to the case.

The court  ruled in November 2018 that Dutch company Ancientgrain’s patent covering the rights to process teff was invalid. According to the Dutch embassy in Ethiopia, the verdict was confirmed last week.

In a February 6  post on the embassy’s twitter page, the government said that as the period in which an appeal could be filed had expired, the verdict was now final.

The case arose when Ancientgrain asserted its patent for processing teff against Dutch bakery Bakels in 2014. Bakels advertised a teff flour mix on its website, prompting Ancientgrain to file a patent infringement case.

Bakels responded by claiming that the patent lacked inventiveness and was therefore void. The Netherlands Patent Office issued advisory guidance in 2015 that the patent was invalid.

The court’s judgment supported this conclusion, finding that the claimed methods for baking teff, including mixing the flour with moisture and a leavening agent, and mixing the teff flour with another crop, were “very common” baking methods and did not constitute inventive steps.

According to the court, the claimed temperature range for baking teff which supposedly achieves the best results, which Bakels disputed, also lacked inventiveness as Ancientgrain had failed to substantiate the claim.

According to the  Ethiopian News Agency, the court’s decision was “critical” as the Ethiopian government prepared to press for “full ownership” of teff.

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