Vulnerability of Indigenous Knowledge Systems’
initiatives in South Africa.
Author: Mr. Mphela Raphesu
Tel: +2712 844 0166
Fax:+27 86 565 7036
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This study was inspired by Matthew Hill’s article on Biopiracy published on the Financial Mail.
The article indicated the level of vulnerability of the majority of African states by international
companies where resources are taken by international corporations out of Africa for nothing and
giving nothing in return to the Knowledge holders.
The topic induced intellectual curiosity that led to the convening of a conference on “Synergizing
Indigenous Knowledge Systems into Business
Innovation through Knowledge Management”.
“ ... it is not just about woven baskets and
The conference aimed at identifying challenges
handicraft for tourists per se.... [It is about]
exploring indigenous technological knowledge in
and a possible solution towards ensuring that
agriculture, fishing, forest resource exploitation,
indigenous knowledge is documented, ...,medicine, pharmacology, and recasting the
potentialities they represent in a context of
commercialized and knowledge holders are
democratic participation for community, national
rewarded accordingly. Delegates highlighted the
and global development in real time...”
Dr Catherine Odora-Hoppers
link between indigenous knowledge and global
knowledge systems and some of the lessons learnt from development initiatives. The paper
concludes with recommendations for enhancing the role of information and communication
technologies in particular to collect, preserve indigenous knowledge, detailed treatment of these
issues but rather to raise salient points around the intersection between information and
communication technologies and IK systems.
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Table of Contents
1. Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 3
2. The concept of Indigenous Knowledge Systems ...................................................................... 3
3. Background to the state of IKS in South Africa ......................................................................... 4
4. Indigenous Knowledge Management Systems Challenges in South Africa…....……………….4
4. Conclusion ................................................................................................................................ 7
5. Recommendations .................................................................................................................... 8
6. Bibliography ............................................................................................................................ 11
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This study will confirm, refute, extend previous findings and provide new findings with regards to
Indigenous Knowledge Systems initiatives and how knowledge holders in South Africa should
benefit from such initiatives. Historically, indigenous knowledge has been downplayed in the
management of information. However, the growing realization that indigenous knowledge has a
role to play in national development as well as the knowledge management environment has led
to the growth of interest in preserving and managing it.
Biopiracy is highlighted as a major challenge in preserving traditional knowledge from major
corporations that openly take advantage of weak “intellectual property” protection in most
emerging economies. The paper also tries to bring the flavor of leveraging strategic
partnerships to bridge the innovation chasm in South Africa. This can be made possible based
on the given recommendations that include a blend of information and communication
technologies which promote easy access of indigenous knowledge systems. The study ends
with concluding remarks with regards to the status of IKS in the country.
2. The concept of Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Quiroz (1994) defines Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) as the sum total of the knowledge
and skills which people in a particular geographic area possess and which enable them to get
the most out of their environment. Social networking sessions like camp-fire storytelling settings
were used to transfer such knowledge to the younger generations in an effort to provide them
with survival strategies.. It should be noted that knowledge holders in each new generation
adapted and added to this body of knowledge in a constant adjustment to changing
circumstances and environmental conditions. In present times, the creation of knowledge is
complex; its sharing requires diverse tools for translation, conversion, filtering and a two-way
communication and interaction. As indicated by Chabalala (2010), IKS needs to be approached
in a holistic manner in order to go beyond the boundaries of the physical body into the spiritual.
This is in contrast to bio-medicine which views the body mechanistically mainly in terms of
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Prah (1991) identified the following types of knowledge that have implications to IKS:
• Tacit knowledge - unconscious and intuitive knowledge gained through experience that
allows individuals to make decisions without referring to rules or principles (e.g.
knowing how to perform medical operations, knowing how to network at a conference)
• Explicit knowledge – knowledge that is articulated and accessible to anyone who
reads, hears or looks at it (e.g. a training guide on using a software package or the
conclusions of a policy briefing paper)
Implicit knowledge - helps individuals to know what is socially and culturally
appropriate in a given circumstance including shared beliefs, values and
expectations (e.g. knowing that it is inappropriate to undermine colleagues in
public, understanding management attitudes within a given organization).
In addition, De Carvhalo (2010) summarized the importance of IKS to South Africa that:
IKS can lead to increased revenue from sales.
Induce renewed interest in the floral kingdoms of Africa and associated research.
Increase job opportunities in harvesting, preparation, transportation, and manufacturing
and distribution sectors.
3. Background to the state of IKS in South Africa.
Many South African citizens, especially in the countryside are still dependent on indigenous
knowledge for health and agriculture. Nxumalo (2010) also stressed the over-reliance of IKS for
healing purposes by citing the usage of Rooibos tea to ease digestion. Although considerable
progress has been made by the NIKSO (National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office) in
promoting indigenous knowledge systems a dearth can still be identified through scattered IKS
initiatives run by various government and not-for-profit organizations. This can be the fact that
indigenous knowledge still lies in the margins of science, where most scholars consider it as
part of the informal market, Alum (2009).
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4. Indigenous Knowledge Management Systems Challenges in South Africa
In comparison with other countries in both emerging and mature markets, the following major
challenges to the management and preservation of indigenous Knowledge were identified in
There are few linkages between IK and the curriculum in terms of needs, goals, teaching
strategies and instructional resources of various kinds. Australia supported identifying
framework projects and suggested educating government policymakers and
encouraging them to create permanent taxonomist positions. Indonesia has gone far by
developing necessary expertise and curricula for university courses on taxonomy. As
indicated by Chabalala (2010), South Africa is now planning to go the same route, by
introducing an accredited degree in indigenous Knowledge Systems. This initiative is
steered by the Department of Science and Technology and the South African
Qualifications Authority. However, more strategies and experimental projects are
required for students undertaking such studies to gain knowledge.
There is scarcity of dedicated taxonomists to study biodiversity, identify species,
describe species that are new to science, determine their taxonomic relationships and
make predictions about their properties. Nxumalo (2010) highlights the value of local
information to be increased in line with globalisation. Matsabisa (2010) also emphasized
on South Africa’s Farmer 2 Pharma Grand Challenge which is “to be one of the top three
emerging economies in the global pharmaceutical industry, based on expansive
innovation system using the nation’s indigenous knowledge and rich biodiversity”.
Due to rapidly changing natural environments and fast-paced socio-economic conditions
like urbanization, indigenous knowledge systems is at risk of becoming extinct. Mayeng
(2010) supports such a statement by highlighting a poor coordination of South African
experts in various fields related to IKS to take a lead in documenting Indigenous
Knowledge. Although this is debatable, Mayeng (2010) supported his argument that both
Nigeria and India have gone far by documenting their unique species into published
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glossaries despite limited resources. The intrusion of technology aggravates the
disappearance of indigenous knowledge. Local practices conducted by the CSIR as
indicated by Maharaj (2010) can be adopted to alleviate this problem. Maharaj (2010)
further indicates that traditional healers provide the CSIR scientists with indigenous
knowledge (IK) that stimulates research that can eventually lead to discovery and
development of new drugs.
Uncoordinated research activities into Indigenous Knowledge Systems pose a major
problem in keeping momentum. Despite the existence of the NIKSO, IK activities
continue to be desynchronized. As a result it becomes unmanageable to leverage
limited resources earmarked for IKS projects. Mayeng (2010) also stressed the
importance of cooperative efforts at local, regional and national levels and called for
strategic alliances between the existing institutions
Knowledge hoarding impedes proper utilization of the wealth of natural products to
discover, extract, synthesize, optimize and develop patentable medicines. The mind
setting of the majority of local researchers is to restrict the capturing and preserving of
collected IK by not providing it to knowledge practitioners who ensure easy access and
Activists argue that, multinationals make huge profits from African biodiversity but rarely
share proceeds with the communities who discovered, kept and transmitted the
knowledge. In some case, pharmaceutical companies and research companies from
more mature markets often send agents to tap the knowledge of traditional African
pharmacologists for attainment of economic self-determination and self-reliance. Before
the promulgation of the IPR Act (Intellectual Property Rights Act), traditional systems of
IP protection in South Africa were not adequately suited to the protection of indigenous
knowledge since these are individualistic systems, whereas indigenous knowledge is
held by communities.
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The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in force since 1993, recognizes the
sovereignty of states and communities over their genetic resources. Doubell (2010)
indicates that “traditional knowledge, innovations and practices are constantly challenged
and exploited by local and foreign commercial interests”. Namibia has gone far to prevent
such malpractices by introducing stringent laws to ensure that proceeds are equally shared
with local knowledge holders, Knott (2010). As indicated by Dr. Tewolde Berhan Egziabher,
a leading expert on the topic at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia "They
are stealing the loaf and sharing the crumbs". Documenting and publicizing IK could
immediately lead to their appropriation by others without return to innovators, particularly, if
indigenous knowledge leads to profit for transnational corporations. Therefore it is crucial
that the contribution of the indigenous knowledge holders be recognized and rewarded.
Doubell (2010) further accentuates that intellectual property rights of the individuals and
communities have to be protected and benefits have to be generated for innovators as well
as local communities.
Apart from developing a policy on indigenous knowledge systems adopted by the South African
Parliament in 2004 and the development of the NIKSO situated within the DST, the government
has also made significant strides in promulgating the IPR ACT and Biodiversity Act. Professor
Yonah Seleti (2010) states that “Indigenous knowledge is difficult and costly…”. What is crucial
is the synchronization and implementation of institutional frameworks for supporting indigenous
knowledge systems, academic and applied research issues, systems for capturing indigenous
knowledge, the promotion of networking among practitioners and legislations to protect
intellectual property associated with indigenous knowledge. This invariably means a
realignment of IKS thinking within all structures and clearly a well-thought out plan is essential to
ensure that IK becomes a usable knowledge.
Following the “Synergizing Indigenous Knowledge Systems into Business Innovation through
Knowledge Management” conference, significant steps were undertaken by BioPAD/TIA and
the NIKSO office to strengthen partnerships between institutional frameworks and government
departments for supporting indigenous knowledge systems. Based on talks between the two
organizations, networking of major local institutions will begin to work on indigenous knowledge
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Doubell (2010) who has been instrumental in the promulgation of the IPR Act mentions the
need for the unambiguous definition of discovery and invention in the granting of patents for
biotechnological investigations. In addition to the South African Patents Act that was
amended to be linked to the Biodiversity Act, the IPR Act will soon be enacted to bolster the
protection of IP rights of communities so that they share in the benefits of the
commercialization of products of their indigenous knowledge. Advocacy campaigns to educate
communities and other stakeholders about the benefits of the IPR Act in the protection and
commercialization of Indigenous Knowledge Systems must be undertaken in the simplest
language that can also be understood illiterate citizens.
It is critical that cooperative efforts at national, regional and international levels are forged by
the NIKSO office for such projects to be documented. In most cases theses projects are costly
therefore, stakeholders need to contribute resources and time to make such initiatives fruitful.
There is a need for establishing various community-based structures to be used in order to
protect and transfer indigenous knowledge and the best practices in using IK systems for
development. This is important to prevent indigenous knowledge that is already in the public
domain from being patented as new. The International Federation of Library Association
asserts that libraries could also help in:
- collecting, preserving and disseminate indigenous and local traditional knowledge
- publicizing the value, contribution, and importance of indigenous knowledge to both
non-indigenous and indigenous peoples.
- raising awareness on the protection of indigenous knowledge against exploitation.
- involving elders and communities in the production of IK and teaching children to
understand and appreciate the traditional knowledge.
- encouraging the recognition of principles of intellectual property to ensure the proper
protection and use of indigenous knowledge and products derived from it.
Furthermore, it is crucial to safeguard indigenous knowledge holders from exploitation by
commercial players. As indicated by Doubell (2010), their rights need to be protected and any
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agreements entered into by themselves and their commercial partners should provide for
equitable benefit-sharing and material transfer agreements. Doubell (2010) further mentions
the newly promulgated IPR Act as one mechanism for the regulation of benefit-sharing.
Improved ICT services such as Broadband, Mobile technologies (3G) will assist in improved
efforts to successfully gather IK. Open Source has a major role to play, especially in an
emerging economy like South Africa. A reliable and accessible infrastructure is a prerequisite
for modern information exchange. Different software tools and platforms ranging from
Database Management Systems, Geographic Information Systems to text and speech and
character recognition tools, graphical touch screens, audio and video editing tools may be
considered for the management and dissemination of indigenous knowledge. Nxumalo (2010)
further indicates more advanced and new tools like wikis (collaborative authoring), blogging
(personal journal, commentary and online diaries) and podcasting (syndication of digital media
for playback on portable players and computers) which could be adapted to capture and
disseminate indigenous knowledge. The application of ICT for managing knowledge is not
without problems. For instance, not all aspects of living traditions of indigenous knowledge
can be captured as ‘artifacts’ using digital technology. Again, the collection of information from
diverse indigenous sources is often a laborious, time-consuming and costly process.
Knowledge holders may not be willing to share their actual knowledge. Taxonomists are
required to forge strategic partnerships with knowledge holders in communities that still have
the technique of rainmaking, knowledge of plants, traditional handcraft, agricultural acumen,
health and illness etc.
Matsabisa (2010) emphasized the importance of “getting research results into policy, practice,
promotion and product” through understanding the industry, local conditions and constant
interaction and intervention. Matsabisa (2010) further mentions that when blended with
business models like Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage Strategy and Geert Hofstede’s
Theory of cultural differences IKS products made in South Africa can be best products that
cannot be copied or replicated by competitors.
Community-based resource centers that can enhance the flow of IK must be adopted based
on the success of countries like Namibia. There is a need to strengthen the capacities of local
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