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From Exploitation to Empowerment: The Maasai Tribe's Journey to Intellectual Property Ownership

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members of the Maasai tribe during a radio appearance
Photo depicts Maasai tribe members on the radio in Simanjiro, Tanzania broadcasting about the IP initiative. "Tuko pamoja" is Swahili for "we’re in this together." Photo credit: Isaac ole Tialolo.

Transforming Lives and Building Sustainable Futures

Ten years ago, UMD School of Public Policy lecturer and social entrepreneur Meg Brindle embarked on an extraordinary journey of innovation and empowerment, igniting a groundbreaking endeavor that would grant the Maasai tribe in Kenya and Tanzania the key to reclaiming, owning and protecting their intellectual property rights. With a globally recognized brand and image, hundreds of companies around the world ranging from cars to luxury goods have capitalized on the Maasai tribe, consisting of 2 million people, without their permission or compensation. Recognizing the impoverished conditions of the indigenous Maasai community yet seeing their immense potential to generate substantial life-changing income through licensing agreements, Brindle has been on a mission ever since to restore the licensing income that is rightfully theirs. 

Brindle’s expertise extends well beyond intellectual property and includes teaching social entrepreneurship, international development and leadership courses at the School of Public Policy that complement and support her work with indigenous communities. “I see a real intersectionality in that the best leaders are servant leaders,” she explains. “With nearly a billion people still below poverty levels, how can we not work on helping them and particularly with an asset that already exists?”

In addition to working with the Maasai, Brindle and her team collaborate with farmers and producers, including northern Ugandan former child soldiers, who offer exceptional shea butter priced at just 3% of the retail value. Their work involves imparting crucial business skills such as intellectual property, trademarking and licensing, empowering them to take ownership of their brand, packaging and positioning in the higher-end market. With Brindle and her team’s assistance in positioning, marketing, branding and intellectual property ownership, the shea butter pricing can increase to as much as 40% of the retail value.

Driven by SPP’s mission to change the world, master’s students may choose from a range of specialization options that align with their specific policy interests. Among these options is International Development Policy (IDEV) which delves into economics, politics, demographics, health and ethics. Students acquire the tools and skills to identify development challenges and measure accurately the effects of interventions on development outcomes.

The Maasai project began to unfold when Brindle met an Ashoka social entrepreneur who had successfully returned $101 million to Ethiopian coffee farmers through an IP strategy. Inspired by this achievement and recognizing the potential for the Maasai tribe to benefit from a similar approach, Brindle used the Ashoka social entrepreneur’s previous success as a blueprint. This success encouraged the involvement of various stakeholders and attracted grants from organizations like the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the UK agency Comic Relief. Receiving a training and education grant from the USPTO for $1.25 million and another for $800,000 to form a support organization, Brindle took ten graduate students to East Africa to work with the Maasai tribe and conduct research, and also created the African IP Trust which she also currently chairs. 

Her graduate students’ research revealed that some companies, several of which are local to Annapolis, Maryland, sell items that use the Maasai name and are quite lucrative, retailing for between $3,000 and $20,000. “The Maasai ‘brand’ can return appreciable income to the Maasai via a standard licensing strategy which is 5-10% retail,” explains Brindle. 

The grants played a crucial role in enabling Brindle to develop and implement education and training programs. These initiatives focused on empowering farmers, government trade ministers and trainers with knowledge on IP value capture and related strategies. The training materials were developed at multiple levels and translated into local languages such as Swahili, Maa and Acholi.

To realize the project, Brindle formed the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative (MIPI), a collective rights-owning entity that represents the Maasai community's interests. The primary challenge was organizing the Maasai, who live in two countries, into a unified legal entity. MIPI's board of Maasai leaders was established to oversee the IP ownership and strategy. 

“In being moved by the billion still below poverty levels and another billion just above that, another billion for whom one disaster could wipe them out … this is a strategy that works. It is not dependent on climate change or drought as physical exports are, but about the brand value of companies such as Louis Vuitton who use the Maasai name and held a Maasai fashion show in Paris,” says Brindle. “IP can serve to overcome other trade challenges in Africa - producers are frequently on commodity markets wherein they receive 3-5% of retail and are distant to port with relatively poor roads, diminishing the farmer/producer returns for their products. IP strategies can overcome these limits.”

Through extensive awareness campaigns and education initiatives, the Maasai were informed of the value of their IP assets and the potential for licensing agreements. Several successful partnerships and licensing agreements have already been achieved. A major luxury car brand returned the Maasai trademark, opening the door for future licensing opportunities. Additionally, a clothing company also returned the Maasai trademark, though the details remain confidential. 

Brindle’s book, “Social Entrepreneurship for Development: A Business Model,” highlights her experiences and achievements in working with indigenous communities. “The book seeks to demonstrate why intellectual property ownership is a viable poverty-alleviating strategy with great promise for low-income farmers and producers,” shares Brindle. Providing a 7-step business model and highlighting 14 distinctive product opportunities for farmers to generate higher income, Brindle’s book covers various topics including intellectual property, trademarks, licensing, historical IP models and social impact investment, and features case studies and insightful interviews with IP visionaries including the renowned David Cardwell, who played a pivotal role in the Star Wars licensing.

Routledge, the book’s publisher, has requested a second edition that will encompass chapters on social impact investing, delve deeper into the Caribbean producers, and shed light on women’s empowerment as farmers and producers like those involved in shea butter production in northern Uganda. It will also feature a chapter on new models of financing featuring social impact investing. SPP student Jason Weitzman is working on his Capstone project with Brindle this summer and helping to draft the chapter.

Beyond the Maasai tribe, Brindle emphasizes the replicability of this model for other indigenous communities worldwide. Building on past successes, she plans to expand the project to empower other groups including the Cherokee, Navajo and Tuareg peoples.

In collaboration with theoretical physicist Bob Lange, who serves as president of The International Collaborative for Science, Education, and the Environment, Brindle is working to provide funding for smoke-free stoves and solar panels for the Maasai tribe. This initiative addresses health issues caused by smoke-filled huts and contributes to the overall well-being of the community. The stoves and solar panels are manufactured by indigenous Maasai tribe members then installed into homes by the local women to improve air quality, provide electricity and stimulate the local economy.

“We have a tendency to think entrepreneurship is ‘now’ and it is for some, but not always,” acknowledges Brindle. “I think students always love hearing about the real world, as our faculty are deeply engaged.  We also have amazing students at the policy school - many of my international development students have worked in Africa and frequently hail from developing countries. We have a great sharing of minds and ideas in the classroom. I always say there are 20-40 minds and lifetime experiences in the classroom and my role in part is to nurture and bring forth as much as possible to lecture. Entrepreneur comes from the root word, ‘entreprendre’ - to bring forth. This is the generation who will take what I and others may have planted, researched and begun and bring it to fruition.”

With ongoing media coverage and support from international organizations, Brindle continues to raise awareness about the Maasai tribe's struggle for intellectual property rights and the potential economic benefits. By bridging the gap between academia, entrepreneurship and international development, Brindle remains dedicated to making a positive and lasting impact on indigenous communities worldwide.

For Media Inquiries:
Megan Campbell
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
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