Sunday, 28 July 2013

The race for Rooibos: a fight brews in France

"South Africa fights to protect rooibos tea name after French trademark bid" is the title of a piece published last Thursday in the UK, in the Guardian (here), and brought to this blogger's attention via the excellent Retail+IP LinkedIn Group.  According to the article, in relevant part:
"... Rooibos ("red bush" in Afrikaans) has been grown exclusively in South Africa for generations and is now worth an estimated 600m rand (£40m) a year for the country. So a French company's attempt to trademark its name was never going to be dismissed as a mere storm in a teacup.

The South African Rooibos Council has written to French authorities demanding clarification of the audacious move by Compagnie de Trucy, fearing that it could prevent South African companies from selling tea under the rooibos name in France.

First, however, it had to hastily find a translator, since challenges to trademark applications must be submitted in French. "We only had four days' notice of this," said the council co-ordinator, Soekie Snyman. "Fortunately there is an ex-Capetonian working in the embassy and a French research institute who were extremely helpful."

Snyman said she had no problem with rooibos-related trademarks anywhere in the world, but would object if it transpired that the French company was seeking exclusive ownership. "We had to file an observation with the French trademark authority to say we don't want just one company to have the right to use the term rooibos. We are still inquiring about their intentions."

... Last year it successfully blocked another French company from making a similar application.

... The council ultimately aims to secure a status like that of champagne, darjeeling tea, basmati rice and Colombian coffee. "If we can get protection of rooibos in the EU as geographic indicator, any other country in the future that managed to grow it would not be allowed to call it rooibos," Snyman said. "People pay a lot for champagne as opposed to sparkling wine because of its exclusivity. It would be good if we could make rooibos something exclusive too."

To this end the council is seeking to have rooibos legally protected in South Africa and then in the EU. This month the South African trade ministry proposed regulations to protect rooibos under the Merchandise Marks Act, stating: "The name rooibos can only be used to refer to the dry product, infusion or extract that is 100% pure rooibos – derived from Aspalathus linearis and that has been cultivated or wild-harvested in the geographic area as described in this application. ...".
This blogger hopes that this episode will serve as a wake-up call to all African nations that are sitting on home-grown products with potentially vast commercial value: the time to take stock of your assets was a decade ago. You've only still got them because opportunists elsewhere in the world have been sleeping too. There is literally not a minute to lose. The rights are there for you to assert. If you don't, you may be blocked from exporting and selling your valuable crops under their normally understood name because it has been snapped up as a trade mark.

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