Framework for rewarding indigenous knowledge in developing countries: Value chain for grassroots innovations Anil K Gupta (

The asymmetry in access to biodiversity and opportunities for value addition and benefit sharing among formal and informal sectors is evident all over the world.  However, of late, it is also becoming clear that communities and individuals, which have contributed towards the conservation of biodiversity and associated knowledge systems are not willing to keep patience with the current asymmetry.  The Convention on Biological Diversity, a few undertaking on genetic resources and farmers’ rights and recent discussion in the inter governmental panel set up by WIPO on genetic resources, indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights provide sufficient indication of the tensions that exist on the continued asymmetry.

It is now becoming clear to most developing countries that unless national initiatives are taken to correct the distortions in the incentive structures for local communities, the erosion of knowledge and the resources will not be stemmed.  The erosion of knowledge takes place due to many reasons.  One of the important reasons is the unwillingness of young people to acquire the traditional knowledge and improvise it by blending it with contemporary knowledge because the incentives are not adequate at present.  While the older generation had lesser choices and also a stronger communitarian spirit, the younger generation seems to prefer a more remunerative choice, which can compete with other available alternatives.  In any case, they do not want to remain poor, which they notice was the fate of the most of the knowledge rich traditional knowledge experts.

One of the challenges before policy makers is to identify a portfolio of incentives which provide monetary and non-monetary incentives to individuals and groups engaged in conserving diversity and associated knowledge systems. 

Some of the basic building blocks of the emerging policy consensus are:

  1. The process of development cannot be dignified unless it builds upon a resource in which poor people are rich, i.e., their knowledge. 
  • The conservation of knowledge in a globalising economy cannot take place entirely on cultural grounds.  Institutional support systems are necessary to document, characterize, valorize and incentivise these knowledge systems.
  • While the role of communities in conserving the resources and the associated knowledge system is very vital, without proper incentives for individual experts and innovators, the incentive for specialisaiton and adaptation of knowledge to changing needs may not exist. 
  • The educational system has to make a significant contribution in this regard so that the esteem for this knowledge system begins to take shape right from the early stage. 
  • The intellectual property rights of the individuals and communities have to be protected if benefits have to be generated for the knowledge experts as well as local communities.  If knowledge is in public domain, then there is no need for any one to pay any compensation to access such knowledge and/or resources. 

Traditional knowledge and traditional ways of knowing

Many scholars have argued that traditional knowledge is primarily transferred from one generation to another, managed by communities and is contained in a cultural context which is quite different from the so called modern consciousness.  There is an element of truth in it.  But the complexity of traditional knowledge systems is quite high.  One has to distinguish between traditional knowledge and traditional ways of knowing.    Traditional knowledge is further segmented into knowledge i.e., known and practiced by everybody or known/or practiced only by few.   The production and reproduction of knowledge, innovation and practices at local level requires various kinds of social networks which may vary from one place to another and one knowledge and resource content to another.  It is not as if the knowledge produced over long period of time gets transferred to subsequent generation in a fossilized form.  Every generation makes its own contribution to improvise and adapt the knowledge system.  Some of these innovations may be quite common in one community whereas it may appear as innovation to another.   On the other hand, the traditional ways of knowing may produce contemporary innovations which may be of considerable importance and in some cases may even advance the frontiers of knowledge.   It is this source of creativity which has remained grossly neglected.   The framework for rewarding traditional knowledge systems thus has to provide incentives for both, the knowledge produced in the long past and carried forward by subsequent generations through their own improvisations and the knowledge produced in recent past using traditional ways of knowing building upon local or even external resources or a combination of both.

The scientific basis of many of the traditional technologies can indeed provide new ways of solving contemporary problems.  At the same time, there are many traditional practices which may not only be totally unsustainable but even positively harmful to the environment and biodiversity.  One has to therefore be sufficiently pragmatic while deciding which elements of traditional knowledge systems should be sustained and which not.  However, one can indeed assume that proportion of non-sustainable practices in traditional knowledge systems is much lesser than in the contemporary modern life and belief systems. 

Contested domains:

The interface between private, community and public domain has to be studied carefully to understand the way each of these domain impinges on the overall potential for creativity and innovation at grassroots.  The detailed discussion on the subject is provided elsewhere.  It will suffice to list the key sources of tension:

 Table – 1 Contested domain of Knowledge

a) Private individual knowledge inherited from forefathers                                        K1

b) Acquired the skill to practice it faithfully without modification                                K1-wm

or with modification                                                                                         K1-m

c) Individual rights to use the modified and unmodified knowledge according to

same rules                                                                                                      K1-sr

Or different rules                                                                                             K1-dr

d) Knowledge known to the community                                                                     K-2

e)   Knowledge practiced by individuals if known to individuals                                 K1-I

f)    Knowledge practiced by individuals if known to community                               K2-I

g)   Knowledge practiced by community if known to community                              K2-c

h) Knowledge practiced by community even if details known to individual/s            K1-c

  1.  Known to community but not practised by individuals or community                 K2-n

j) knowledge known to community and accessible to outsiders                                K2-a

k) Knowledge known to community and not accessible to outsiders                        K2-na

l) Knowledge known to wider public through documentation or otherwise                K3

m) Knowledge known to wider public and practised by only few individual              K3-I

n) knowledge known to wider public and practised by wider public                          K3-P

o) Knowledge known to wider public and not practised by any one                          K3-n

(Own Compilation, Adapted from Gupta, 1999)  

It is obvious that the complexity in table one may not be very comprehensive and there are dimensions both temporal and spatial which if superimposed on the above categories can make complexity even higher.  The point being made here is that portfolio of incentives will have to be equally rich and diverse if different processes of knowledge production, reproduction, validation, value addition and dissemination in the traditional societies as well as local communities have to be nurtured and adequately rewarded.

The three case studies given in chapter six have been developed by the author for WIPO to demonstrate the variety of ways in which the role of different stakeholders can be identified.  For instance, in the case of Genetic Resource Recognition Fund set up at University of California, Davis could never take off the ground because of lack of commercialisation of the cloned genes derived from a wild rice from Mali.   What is important to understand is that even if resources were there, the benefits might not have gone to the Bela community which really dependent upon the wile rice and was the repository of the local knowledge about it.  This community had no land rights and did not belong to the region where this rice is found.  However, being poor and dependent on this rice as a source of stress food, it had developed a rich knowledge of its characteristics and interaction with nature.  The local communities on the other hand, considered this rice as a menace and used herbicides and other methods to eliminate it from the fields.  The conventional stereotyped understanding of the stakeholders might have misdirected the potential benefits to communities living around this wild rice having no stake in its conservation. I therefore, argue that the definition of the stakeholders in conservation, utilization and valorization of local knowledge systems should be derived more carefully than has been the case so far.

Another lesson one learns from this case is that voluntary benefit sharing may not really work.  Mandatory benefit sharing as attempted in the revised undertaking on plant genetic resources is a move in the right direction.  However, the variety of ways in which beneficiaries can be identified needs to be understood so that well intentioned benefit sharing instruments do not end up defeating the purpose.  The second case of Kani tribe is much more meaningful from the point of view of benefit sharing although the lack of willingness of local Forest Department in allowing commercial exploitation of the medicinal herb on which the patented drug was developed has put a question mark on the entire model.  The fact, however, remains that a new beginning has been made through establishment of a Trust Fund comprising primarily of the tribal people for sharing the benefits.  The scientists concerned who identified the potential and developed and licensed the drug set up a unique example by foregoing their own share from the benefits.

The third case of developing traditional knowledge based drugs in Nigeria is equally interesting because of the diverse ways in which benefits have been shared even before any drug was commercialized.  The important lessons are: (a) the benefits have been shared not only with the community which provided the source plant or knowledge for a commercializable drug but with all those who have participated in the process of documentation, (b) the benefits included not just the monetary but also the non-monetary incentives including the capacity building contributions (c)  the benefits were intended not just at the individual provider of the information but also the entire community and (d) the investments are made in conservation of biodiversity itself apart from the knowledge associated with it.  The limitation of the model was that the association of traditional healers had far more weightage in the institution developed to share benefits compared to the representatives of the local communities. 

There are not many models available where the external institutions have shared significant benefit with the local communities to reciprocate their contribution.

The experience of Honey Bee Network:

Honey Bee Network, SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions), GIAN (Gujarat Grassroots Innovation Augmentation Network) and NIF (National Innovation Foundation) have tried to provide some more alternatives for recognising, respecting  and rewarding local creativity, traditional knowledge and contemporary grassroots innovations.  SRISTI has documented through Honey Bee Network more than 11000 outstanding examples of traditional knowledge and contemporary unaided innovations.  Some of these have been taken up by GIAN Gujarat set up as a venture promotion fund in 1997 for incubation and product development.   Through the grants under TePP programme of Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, not only patents have been filed, but also the technologies have been licensed to the entrepreneurs on district and state basis.  The benefits in the process have gone to innovators three to five times of their annual income.  In addition, SRISTI has honoured the innovators every year which has led to reinvigoration of the local knowledge systems and community arrangements for recognising the same.  SRISTI has also organised biodiversity competition among children so as to identify the little genius who often are forced to become unskilled labourers in the local area or cities.  Paradoxically enough the urban kids who may have had no background in conserving or utilizing local biodiversity are often trained as botanist or foresters.  The competition among women for demonstrating various recipes which use at least uncultivated plants helps in drawing attention towards the less known (but perhaps more valuable) source of food and nutrition.  Further, these contests help in identifying women experts whose knowledge is often discounted.  Every six months the members of Honey Bee Network walk for eight to ten days in extreme summer and winter from one village to another to scout for innovations, respect the knowledge experts at their doorstep and share the mulitmedia, multi language Honey Bee database of innovations with the local communities, triggering in the process the experimental and innovative ethic.

In addition to above, SRISTI has campaigned for protection of intellectual property rights of local innovators and communities much before CBD or TRIPS came into existence.  It is a firm belief in our mind that we cannot consider the only resource in which poor people are rich, i.e., their knowledge as a public domain open access resource.    In March 2000, Government of India, Department of Science and Technology announced the formation of NIF under the dynamic and inspiring charipersonship of Dr.R.A.Mashelkar, Secretary DSIR, and DG, CSIR.  NIF has already organised first national competition for scouting innovations and attracted about 1000 entries with 1600 innovations and traditional knowledge examples.  The awards of the first round have been recently announced and interestingly enough the market demand for technologies of some of the awardees has already picked up. 

The value chain of innovations beginning from scouting, validating, value addition, product and enterprise development, intellectual property rights protection, licensing and dissemination requires a whole range of institutional innovations which are absent in most of the developing countries.  Protection of intellectual property rights is just one step in this value chain.  Without accompanying institutional innovations, and variety of non-monetary incentives, intellectual property rights alone may prove to be of limited significance. 

The challenge is to recognise the need for (a) national and international register of innovations and outstanding traditional knowledge, (b) incubators for converting grassroots innovations into products and services and eventually into businesses, (c) setting up micro venture promotion and capital funds to provide risk capital for sustaining the value chain, (d) developing a low transaction cost intellectual property rights protection system which provides incentives to individuals and communities to disclose their knowledge, innovations and practices and (e) bringing about change in the educational system so that the young minds not only anticipate innovations but also create them.  In a globalizing economy, innovations at grassroots, if properly supported by formal science and technology and financial institutions, can provide a basis for achieving competitiveness and excellence as a means of dignified survival.

Ultimately, a synthesis of six Es, i.e., Excellence, Equity, Environment, Efficiency, Ethics and Education would provide the right chemistry for societies seeped in mediocrity to get over their inertia and move towards a compassionate, creative and competitive as well as collaborative society.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place