Imagine a Maasai warrior, or a Maasai woman adorned with beads – it’s one of the most powerful images of tribal Africa. Dozens of companies use it to sell products – but Maasai elders are now considering seeking protection for their ” brand”.
Dressed in smart white checked shirt and grey sweater, you’d hardly know Isaac ole Tialolo is Maasai.The large round holes in his ears – where his jewellery sometimes sits – might be a clue, though.
Isaac is a Maasai leader and elder. Back home in the mountains near Naivasha, in southern Kenya, he lives a semi-nomadic life, herding sheep, goats, and – mostly importantly – cattle.
But Isaac is also chair of a new organisation, the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative, and it’s a project that’s beginning to take him around the world – including, most recently, London.
“We all know that we have been exploited by people who just come around, take our pictures and benefit from it,” he says.
“We have been exploited by so many things you cannot imagine.”
Crunch time for Isaac came about 20 years ago, when a tourist took a photo of him, without asking permission – something the Maasai, are particularly sensitive about.
“We believed that if somebody takes your photograph, he has already taken your blood,” he explains.
Isaac was so furious that he smashed the tourist’s camera.
Twenty years later, he is mild-mannered and impeccably turned out – but equally passionate about what he sees as the use, and abuse, of his culture.
“I think people need to understand the culture of the others and respect it,” he says.
“You should not use it to your own benefit, leaving the community – or the owner of the culture – without anything.”
“If you just take what belongs to somebody, and go and display it and have your fortune, then it is very wrong. It is very wrong,” he says.
According to Light Years IP – an NGO which specialises in securing intellectual property rights in developing countries – about 80 companies around the world are currently using either the Maasai image or name.
These include Land Rover, which has a range of accessories called Masai; Masai Barefoot Technology, which makes speciality trainers; and high-end fashion house Louis Vuitton which has a Masai line, including beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.
Light Years IP is involved in a niche – but growing – area of development policy, known as “intellectual property value capture”.
The argument is that intellectual property rules offer the potential to provide a valuable source of income for people in developing countries, who tend to get only a small sliver of the profits made on their goods on the international market.
If the Maasai ” brand” were owned by a corporation, it would be worth more than $10m (£6.6m) a year – perhaps even “tens of millions”, according to Layton. How much of this the Maasai might be able to claim would be up to negotiation.
Features of the HIGHLY ENDANGERED: THE MAASAI awareness campaign.
“It’s time the world sat up and took notice,” says Lord Boateng, a member of the UK’s House of Lords, whose grandfather was a cocoa farmer in Ghana. “It’s an idea whose time has come.”
Boateng is on the board of directors of the newly-created African IP Trust, which has taken on the Maasai as one of its first cases.
“They are not getting value. Their image is being abused,” says Boateng.
“The Maasai are an ancient and sophisticated people – they know they are being ripped off and they want this to stop.”
It is not yet certain that the Maasai will choose to pursue intellectual property protection – Maasai elders like Isaac ole Tialolo want to be sure that the whole community is on board first.
Together with Light Years IP, he has been travelling around Maasai areas holding meetings and workshops.
It’s a huge task – according to some estimates, there could be as many as three million Maasai, in 12 districts, spread across a vast swathe of Kenya and Tanzania.
So far, they have reached about 1.2 million people.
Once the consultation is complete – and if the Maasai choose to go forward – the plan is to create a General Assembly of Maasai elders, trained in IP, who would act as a legal body specifically on this issue, negotiating with companies via a licensing agent, on a case-by-case basis.
For the moment, the Maasai are not going after any companies – though they have written to a number, in cases where they have found the use of their name or image to be particularly offensive.