Safeguarding Innovation: Preparing the Ground for Access and Benefit Sharing in Rwanda
19 Nov 2019
Have you ever heard of the term ‘Access and Benefit Sharing’- or ABS in short?
ABS is an internationally agreed mechanism for accessing genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, and sharing benefits arising from their utilization. Uh, sounds cryptic, right?
I have been trying to explain this concept to many different people over the past 3 years – from supervisors, government staff, development experts, private sector companies to traditional medicinal healers, students etc.- and below scenario is what I landed on.
Suppose you are a Rwandan woman living in the rural forest area. You have inherited from your father a suite of secret recipes for stomach remedy, pain killer, healing skin rash, and other cures. Using endemic plants that you can find in a nearby forest, you make and sell remedies to community members occasionally for livelihood. One day, two people from a remote country park in front of your house. They say they are starting up a small company and ask for your support to find good plants that they can make medicines out of. Flattered, you agree, and take them to the forest to show them your abundant traditional knowledge on the effects of plants, and hand them a few branches to test. The two people appreciate your help, promises they will come back one day, and depart your house, never to never return again.
This is a fictional scenario, but not totally fiction. During workshops with over 100 traditional healers, I have heard similar stories from different people. And by the way, in Rwanda, traditional medicine is a practice of high confidentiality and pride. The family´s secret could be passed on for generations (the longest case I personally know is 7 generations). Recipes are passed to the most favored child of the successor, based on discipline or knowledge, regardless of gender or first born or not.
With a growing market needs for ‘nature based’ cosmetics, medicines, pesticides, you name it, there is a constant search for new plants, microbes, animal parts (Genetic Resources) that can be commercialized or purely researched. And knowledge of local communities on how to utilize or maintain these genetic resources (associated Traditional Knowledge) are helpful ‘strings’ for identifying claims. We must also remember that ‘discovery’ and taxonomy of new species are mostly ongoing in the Africa region today.
ABS is a mechanism to facilitate informed access to Genetic Resources and associated Traditional Knowledge, and to ensure an equitable sharing of benefits that might arise from research or commercialization, between researchers or companies and local communities or individuals who provided their knowledge or resource. In the above case, the two entrepreneurs would have had to explain and agree with the traditional healer on their intent and potential commercial profit (Prior Informed Consent), make a contract (Mutually Agreed Terms) after negotiating what benefits will be shared with the woman, and then seek for permits from the Government before obtaining any knowledge or plant.
ABS was agreed in the Nagoya Protocol, a landmark international treaty under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which entered into force in 2014 and is ratified by 109 countries, including Rwanda. In short it can be said to be a safeguard to genetic innovation- but also has the potential to unlock new economic opportunities by tapping into the innovation potential of genetic resources used by a variety of industries such as pharmaceutical, agrochemical, food and beverage, cosmetic and biotechnologies. Having a conducive and reliable legislative environment is critical to attract global companies and known research institutions. A delicate balance between being regulatory and restrictive to outside access and some marketing approach to opportunities is needed.
In Rwanda, to prepare the ground for a safeguarded and encouraging ABS environment, UNDP has been supporting Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) through a global project ‘Strengthening human resources, legal frameworks, and institutional capacities to implement the Nagoya Protocol (Global ABS Project)’ along with 21 other countries, funded by the Global Environment Facility.
The country has so far validated the draft clauses to be included in the Biodiversity Law revision, a new draft Ministerial Order on ABS, a Guideline and Toolkit for ABS of Traditional Knowledge Associated with Genetic Resources and built the technical capacity of stakeholder institutions on ABS negotiations. An inventory report on traditional knowledge showed the wide variety of claims and industries Rwanda can potentially tap into, as well as some insights on gender differences that we want to be mindful of. The project is currently investing in a proof of concept while drafting a national valorization strategy to maximize potential value creation from genetic resources in the country. Instead of writing up a strategy based on desk research and analysis, government and national laboratory staff actively went out to trade fairs, trying out negotiation exercises with international companies, seeking laboratories to partner with and learning by doing, so that the learnings can be written down into an agile strategic document. The project has been investing in creating a local ABS community through a cycle of training stakeholders who were then called on to act as document reviewers. To take it as a learning opportunity, a local higher learning institution was hired for guideline and inventory preparation with technical backstop from international experts.
ABS is unique because of its effort to promote equitable innovation- it comes with challenges such as the complexity of legal procedures, the concept itself is not intuitive, and technological innovation is happening more rapidly than legislation can catch up. For example, what should we do with digital sequencing technologies? Companies can now easily reverse engineer genetic resources if you have digitally sequenced DNA data- i.e., in the near future, you may not have to go to the tropical jungles of Africa to collect endemic species- i.e., access to genetic resource is not required anymore (this is a topic worth a separate blog post…) Thus, the strategy and legislations need to be agile and leave space for learning and iteration. But well, doesn’t this sound like any other topic around channeling innovation toward sustainable development? Learnings from the ABS mechanism, one can reflect on how countries can iteratively safeguard and adopt to technological innovation and commercial markets.
Well, this is where we are. Interested in taking part of this exciting journey? Rwanda still has some way to go with the national valorization strategy, and the project is looking for partners that can help to build the national capacity for ABS negotiation, laboratory research and marketing. Please contact us if you have good ideas for partnering with the initiative!
About the author
Reina Otsuka is Environmental Specialists at UNDP Rwanda. Reina manages and designs projects in green economy and climate resilience. She is also the Innovation Lead for Africa under the UNDP Innovation Facility