“Patenting” The Late Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai’s Hyacinth Casket

The Watchman in today’s Nation mentioned the youth group from the lakeside city of Kisumu who invented the environment-friendly water hyacinth coffin in which Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai’s remains were carried. The lady in this article insists that the group should “rush for the patent of the hyacinth coffin”.

In urging the coffin innovators to act swiftly in seeking patent protection, she warns:
“Someone (else) could just go ahead and do it and leave them crying as happened to the ciondo (basket) makers, after some Japanese fellows registered the patent. Can the government help them out?”

Is the hyacinth coffin patentable?

In order for the hyacinth coffin to be patentable, it must fall within the definition of “invention” as provided in section 21 of the Industrial Property Act, 2001. Furthermore, section 22 of the Act provides that this invention must meet three requirements: 1) Novelty (it must be new); 2) Non-obviousness ( it must involve an inventive step) and 3) Industrial Applicability (it must be industrially applicable or is a new use). An “invention” is defined as a solution to a specific problem in the field of technology and it may either be a product or a process.

Assuming the hyacinth coffin satisfies the novelty requirement, there is little questioning that it is indeed useful for purposes of the industrial applicability test. However, the requirement of non-obviousness is clearly not met therefore the hyacinth coffin would not be patentable. Nevertheless the inventors of the hyacinth coffin could apply for a utility model certificate in lieu of a grant of patent.

Ciondo/Kiondo Factor in Intellectual Property Protection
As it has been repeated several times before, the kiondo was never stolen by the Japanese. The main reason is that it cannot be patented as a product because it has been in the public domain for decades as a work originating from particular ethnic groups in Kenya. The Japanese have simply registered a process patent which is based on an invention they came up with which is able to produce en masse industrial woven baskets, some made of fabric or paper materials. But let’s not forget there’s a Kenyan company, Black Gold Ltd, which has its branch in Yokohama in Japan. They have leveraged on patent processing of the kiondo and have turned the basket into a high quality and desirable haute couture item that is incorporated into product designs and has a huge market both in Europe and Asia.
Therefore the role of KIPI is not get involved in policing the private IP rights of registered owners but rather to raise the awareness of the general public of their intellectual property rights and how they can protect them. The initiative to apply for registration can only come for the inventor himself or herself. As far as the costs of registration, KIPI has discretion under the Act to waive payment of registration fees in certain cases.

The Kiondo factor has nevertheless been important in getting Kenyans to be more conscious of their intellectual property assets in order to find ways of developing ideas and commercializing them.

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