East African livelihoods at risk in trademark threat

By staff writers
March 17, 2007

Thousands of East Africans could lose their livelihoods – and the freedom to use a word from their language – if a trademark application by a UK company succeeds, says a leading Christian development organisation.

The application, by the Kikoy Company UK Ltd, would give the company sole commercial rights to the term “kikoy” – a corruption of “kikoi”, the Kiswahili word for the distinctive colourful, wrap skirts worn by men and women along the East African coast.

Traidcraft Exchange, the charitable arm of the Christian-based fair trade organisation, supported by Newcastle-based solicitors Watson Burton, is leading an international coalition fighting the move and has filed opposition to the trademark application in the UK.

“It’s outrageous that words and terms that are distinctive to a people, a culture and a language should be appropriated in this way merely to advance the naked self-interest of commercial organisations,” said Rob Donnelly, Traidcraft Africa Programme Manager.

“The trade in kikoys and kikoy cloth is a traditional and valuable stream of income for East Africa, particularly Kenya, where hundreds of families depend on selling kikoys as a source of hard cash.

“To deny them the use of the term will seriously harm their livelihoods and condemn many to greater poverty and destitution.”

Kikoys have always been a popular purchase with visitors to resorts along the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania, but with demand for ethnic fashions growing – thanks partly to exposure from celebrities like David Beckham and Elle McPherson – kikoys are attracting the interest of mainstream retailers in the developed world as well.

“If this trademark application is granted, it will give the Kikoy Company UK Ltd an effective monopoly in terms of imports into the UK and potentially the whole EU making it impossible for Kenyan traders to export to this valuable market save with the blessing of the Kikoy Company UK Ltd,” said Matthew Rippon, a solicitor in Watson Burton's Intellectual Property Team. “That is neither right nor fair.”

The multi-coloured striped cloth from which kikoys are made is also a popular choice for other clothes and household items such as shirts, hats, dressing gowns, trousers, cushion covers, rugs, throws and duvet covers.

“As an organisation dedicated to fighting poverty through trade, we believe that opposing this application fully accords with our foundation and Christian principles,” said Peter Collins, Traidcraft’s Head of Church Relations, and a Methodist local preacher.

In 2006, Kenya lost the right to use “kiondo” to describe the traditional cylindrical, sisal bag, first made by Central Kenyan and Ukambani women, after the term was registered as a trade mark in Japan and other Asian countries.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.