Pan African Access & Benefit-sharing Workshop

When should Indigenous People be included in the discovery phase of studying or developing new molecules? The answer is: from the start. This was one of the many key outcomes of the 12th Annual Pan African Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) workshop, held in Cape Town from 9 – 13 September 2019. The workshop was hosted by the newly named Department of Environment, Forests and Fisheries and was supported by the ABS Capacity Development Initiative.

The type of attendees included ABS National Focal Points from across Africa – Madagascar, Cameroon, Malawi amongst many others; representatives of indigenous peoples; ABS Capacity Development  Initiative staff; academics; relevant associations, other international organisations and some industry representatives.

The first 2 days of the workshop were dedicated to gaining a better understanding of ABS and how it is applied across different African countries – especially related to the Nagoya protocol and Indigenous People. The African Union (AU) Guidelines to ABS were introduced.

The key takeaway was that there is no one option for national implementation of the Nagoya Protocol. ABS systems must be developed according to national circumstances and countries can opt for different policies and approaches. However, countries are encouraged to consider using the AU guidelines, as this could lead to a more co-ordinated implementation of Nagoya across Africa.

The South African competent National Authority presented on a few occasions where they provided some permit statistics – numbers issued and rejected. No permit applications have been rejected as every applicant is given the opportunity to respond to evaluations and re-apply. They re-iterated that the system in South Africa is not perfect; it is an iterative learning process for their resources and regulations are being revised and improved on an ongoing basis.

On the third day a field trip was organised to visit some of the local companies that are accessing Indigenous Biological Resources in the Western Cape. There were 3 delegate busses and 3 different sites to visit. One was a side of the road site where 2 professors (one local and one international) spoke about their Discovery projects on Galenia Africana and Melianthus comosus respectively. They spoke about the challenges of when to engage Knowledge Holders, who to engage and what benefit sharing can look like at this early stage e.g. benefitting students via bursaries through to including Knowledge Holders in future shareholding and partnerships.

Delegates visited Parceval, where they viewed the organic farm and learnt about how Nagoya has been implemented at Parceval, how cultivation can be viewed as a bioprospecting activity dependent on how the resulting biomass is used, some of the challenges of the Prior Informed Consent process and the high transaction cost of compliance.

They also visited Afriplex, a company also focusing on the development and manufacturing of botanical extracts, complementary medicines and food & beverage product solutions with a focus on unlocking the potential of traditionally used African medicines and botanicals.

The day ended at the Rhebokskloof Wine Estate where a productive panel session on the days’ events and interesting side meetings were enjoyed by all. As with all workshops, much of the value and networking occurred in and around the formal content. As Parceval we had lively discussions with members of the Union for Ethical Biotrade (UEBT); the South African authorities and key ABS representatives of the National Khoisan and South African San Councils.

On the final 2 days a number of technical topics were raised:

  1. The complexity of some supply chains, where a final product is based on multiple ingredients sourced in very small quantities in different countries.  How does one ensure compliance with multiple national laws and also the fair distribution benefit-sharing along the value chain?
  2. Should Traditional Knowledge be incorporated in the International Standard Patenting law and how?
  3. How should digital sequences and blood samples taken during epidemics be handled in respect of ABS?
  4. Do our ABS contracts contain language that is ambiguous and / or too broad e.g. “genetic resources” or “non-commercial”.

A mere 5 days did not allow for solutions to be found for all of these complex questions, however, some of the key takeaways from the workshop included:

  • ABS is a long process of learning by doing
  • Raising awareness on ABS is key
  • National budgets should plan for capacity building activities
  • Experienced IPLCs should share lessons learnt and knowledge gained on ABS with other IPLCs.

All in all, the workshop stimulated lively discussion, caused lights to switch on for individuals on a range of topics and raised a number of future issues and challenges. The road to fair and equitable benefit sharing is not an easy one – but it is comforting to see that important road markers and crash barriers are being put in place to smooth and guide the process for all actors – users, government officials and knowledge holders alike.