Kenya Works With Communities On Genetic Resources And Traditional Knowledge Protection

NAIROBI, Kenya — Excessive degradation and over-exploitation of plant biodiversity in Kenya has led to depletion of some species and narrowed their genetic base. Apart from the conservation challenge, utilisation and sharing of benefits from plant genetic resources and traditional and associated knowledge among communities has also remained opaque despite constitutional guarantees.jjj

The Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI) is thus partnering with other institutions and county governments to assist communities in the country to preserve all aspects of traditional or indigenous knowledge in areas such as health, agriculture, and climate change mitigation.

This includes protection of genetic resources against undue exploitation and biopiracy.

Stanley Atsali, patent examiner at KIPI said the initiative is in line with the Kenya’s Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expressions Act of 2016.

“Part two of the Act stipulates that county governments shall collect information, document and register traditional knowledge within their jurisprudence for the purpose of recognition,” he said.

Atsali added that under the Act, Kenya’s 47 counties are also charged with protection of traditional knowledge from misuse and misappropriation, among other roles.

“These include county governments working with the national government to establish mechanisms to prevent misappropriation, misuse or unlawful access and exploitation of traditional knowledge and cultural expression without prior consent,” he noted.

The Act also states that county governments are supposed to work with institutions such as KIPI, the Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) and Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) in establishment and maintenance of a national repository for genetic resources, traditional knowledge and cultural expressions.

Busia County in Western Kenya is the pioneer in the implementation of the initiative with focus on biodiversity protection. It has drafted a biodiversity policy currently awaiting debate and approval by the county government.

Atsali says KIPI has been working with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) where he is the link person for support on matters relating to protection of traditional knowledge, cultural expressions and genetic resources in Kenya.

“Our current position as KIPI is to support counties on genetic resources and traditional knowledge protection and cultural expression, and we are reaching out to WIPO for support in documenting these resources not just in Busia County but in the rest of46 counties in Kenya, “said Atsali.

Moses Osia, Busia County Minister for Agriculture and Animal Resources, notes that the county like the rest of Kenya is endowed with different unique plant species, including naturally occurring vegetables and mushrooms as well as wild animals.

“The draft policy is necessary in ensuring food security, for it provides opportunity for preserving food system,” said Osia.

He said the draft biodiversity policy recognises that the county has not been fully exploiting its traditional knowledge and genetic resources. According to Osia, when enacted, the policy will aid in educating people about preservation of genetic resources in view of the increased research and commercial exploitation as well as environmental degradation that is causing interference to the ecosystem.

Osia said the move to put a policy in place has been occasioned by fear of loss of knowledge ownership particularly traditional knowledge associated with medicinal plants and traditional foods. Besides that, he noted, the policy is relevant due to the absence of a regulatory framework governing access to biodiversity and associated knowledge and benefit sharing mechanisms from utilisation of biodiversity resources.

Victor Wasike, director, Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI,) also said Kenya is endowed with a diverse heritage of plant and animal genetic resources due to its location in the tropics, varied relief, landscapes and habitats which can support the wellbeing of its people. GeRRI is charged with coordinating genetic resources management to international best practice that provide for conservation, access and benefit sharing arising from the use of plant genetic resources.

However, said Wasike, communities have poor recognition of benefits of biodiversity among other traditional practices and innovations. “The situation is exacerbated by preferences for modern practices that are detrimental to our communities,” he said.

This is happening, he said, despite the fact local communities have for centuries relied on the resources as a source of food, medicine and raw materials for various products, hence accumulated enviable associated knowledge. Like other stakeholders, he noted that genetic resources heritage is faced with genetic erosion as a result of human activities and climate change.

He stressed that the introduction of new plants, including invasive species, has further contributed to the decline of the indigenous flora and fauna.

“Although no comprehensive study has been undertaken to quantify the level of genetic erosion, a significant degree of genetic erosion has taken place mainly due to replacement of traditional varieties as well as animal breeds and other socioeconomic factors,” he said.

Wasike revealed that for a long period, Kenya lacked a formal national institutional framework for conservation of genetic resources.He noted, however, that the establishment of GeRRI under the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) Act of2013 was a step in the right direction.

Apart from KIPI, GeRRI works with several other stakeholders. These include: the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) research centres, Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), National Museums of Kenya (NMK), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), government ministries as well as public universities, community based organisations (CBOs), nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), and farmer groups.

Wasike observed that the institutions largely implement activities in line with their mandates and have formed both formal and informal partnerships. He said, however, that in spite of them collaborating at institutional and individual levels in the implementation of specific activities for genetic resources protection, overall coordination among them is lacking.

Apart from working with the Plant Genetic Resources Research Centre, Wasike also works as the National Project Coordinator, with the Biodiversity for Food and Nutrition Project in Kenya (BFN). He supports the project in provision of scientific evidence to encourage the integration of locally available biodiversity into local Kenyan food systems. Provision of scientific evidence to consumers about plant genetic resources is important for its beneficial to communities owning the resources, he said.

The BFN Initiative has been working with policy stakeholders in Busia County in developing the Biodiversity Conservation Policy. BFN’s main focus is to ensure the policy adequately tackles conservation of nutrient-rich traditional foods to increase diet quality and access to key micronutrients, particularly for mothers and children.

Already, women and youth groups in Busia County have established indigenous vegetable gardens as well as preservation of medicinal plants. The policy is at the same time set to shield them (women and youth groups) from biopiracy.

Moreover, explained Wasike, they collaborate with experts from the County Ministries of Agriculture, Health, Education, Environment, Public Health and Forestry, the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and members of the local community-based organisations. The initiative enables communities to have a say on conservation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, he said.

The BFN’s five-year programme is also being run in Brazil, Sri Lanka and Turkey. It is aimed at improving nutrition and human health. National partners come from relevant ministries, the scientific community, NGOs, civil society and local communities. Wasike said that under the programme, emphasis is put on ensuring conservation of plants is mainstreamed into development programmes in the country.

Kabaka Watai, head of bioprospecting for the Kenya Wildlife Service, a state corporation which runs community wildlife programmes that encourage biodiversity conservation by communities, said increased over-exploitation, bio-piracy and destruction of habitats as well as loss of indigenous knowledge is a key challenge globally. Communities in Kenya are grappling with access, utilisation and benefit sharing genetic resources, he said.

According to Watai, application of intellectual property rights to biological resources should not be exploitative but unfortunately patent rules tend to favour corporations rather than indigenous communities.

He said the global Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) grants states the right to put in place legislative mechanisms where access and utilisation of genetic resources and traditional knowledge is enforced by permits or mutually agreed terms based on prior informed consent.

But as the country endeavours to incorporate communities in ensuring protection of genetic resources and traditional knowledge, several challenges have to be surmounted. Communities need protection even on research findings relating to plants which they consider medicinal, Watai said.

“In South Africa, communities have a say on the study findings relating to plants they consider medicinal,” he said.

In Kenya, he added, traditional medicine has not been adequately documented. “Without proper documentation and clear legal mechanism to protect associated knowledge from communities, it becomes difficult to determine if it has been pirated or not,” he said. Kenya has 3000 citations in patents on use of its genetic resources, he said, yet little benefit has come of it.

The country does not have a substantive law on genetic resources and traditional knowledge protection because the law that was enacted in 2006 became obsolete with the promulgation of a new constitution in 2010, said Watai. The scenario, he said, exposes communities with knowledge on food, medicinal plants and valuable traditional knowledge to exploitation.

Watai further states that Kenya has no defined platform to defend rights of communities that rely on traditional medicine like the case of Brazil. He cites poor record keeping as another challenge. Traditional knowledge he adds is being lost due to poor documentation. “Proper documentation is equally key to intellectual property protection,” he said.

Another observation by Watai is that information access, whereby open access is increasingly becoming the norm, prevents communities from benefiting from their indigenous knowledge relating to genetic resources.

“When knowledge is in public domain, communities have no mandate to claim ownership,” he said.

According to Watai, genetic modification and digital gene sequencing curtails monitoring of genetic resources use thus undermining prospects of benefit sharing on the side of communities. Capacity building and initiating of infrastructure to support communities in preserving their genetic resources and traditional knowledge is vital, he said.

The Kenya Wildlife Service is working with communities and farmers in conservation and protection of genetic resources and traditional knowledge to ensure their sustainable utilisation and proper benefit-sharing schemes especially where their commercial exploitation is involved.

Reference list: Justus Wanjala. 2017. Retrieved from


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