The Authors' Take - A critical review of intellectual property rights in the Kenyan tea sector

A critical review of intellectual property rights in the Kenyan tea sector

Agriculture remains the most important economic sector in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, providing over 50% of overall employment, so the acquisition and use of intellectual property rights (IPRs) in the sector can have wide-reaching effects. In Kenya, tea (primarily in the form of bulk, dried leaves) is the largest export product by value, and is a major source of income for hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers. In addition to the economic benefit, tea (unlike coffee) is widely consumed in Kenya, and has significant cultural importance.

With relatively active patent, trade mark, and copyright offices, a functional plant variety protection (PVP) regime, and membership in the Africa Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), Kenya is home to numerous tea-related IPRs held by both foreign and local entities in government and the private sector. The Kenyan tea sector is therefore targeted in this paper as a case study for exploring various aspects of the sectoral use of IPRs.

Throughout the 20th century, foreign (i.e., non-Kenyan) entities were responsible for a majority of the activity in tea-related IPRs protecting innovation (i.e., patents and PVPs). This appears to be shifting in recent years toward more ownership and participation by local entities. Furthermore, the focus of innovation is more diverse for local applicants. Whereas foreign entities largely seek to protect tea plants and methods of processing tea plants, IPR applications from local entities cover a wider spectrum of the value chain for tea and tea-related products.

In contrast, trade marks have always been predominantly used by local entities. Tea-related trade marks include some that use the names of geographic locations. Kenya does not have a Geographic Indication (GI) system, but both economic and agricultural factors point to a situation that might be ideal for GIs.

A surprising finding is the almost complete lack of any tea-related IPRs held by non-Kenyan, Africa-based entities. Although seven of the top 20 global tea producing nations are in Africa (including all five of the countries in the East African Community), this study found just a few trade marks held by entities in Egypt, Mauritius, and Uganda. Africa-based entities do not hold any tea-related patents, PVP certificates, or national plant variety registrations in Kenya. Such findings may be important for the ongoing negotiations for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

[This is an Authors' Take post, which provides readers with an insight into current IP scholarship, featuring preliminary comments and thoughts from authors of articles accepted for publication in forthcoming issues of the Journal of Intellectual Property Law & Practice (OUP). The full text of this contribution will be made available on Advance Access soon]

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