Over the past 20 years of work, we have always pursued the concept of open source with our work, and have shared the innovative business models freely. This does not prevent us from respecting individual patents and intellectual property (IP) rights associated with hard and creative work. The respect for IP does not mean that I cannot share the breakthroughs in the business model designed around clusters of innovation, creating multiple revenues going beyond the technology. Whereas I seldom play a role in the actual development of technologies, my expertise is to generate dramatically more revenue with locally available resources. As the cake gets bigger, the sharing is easier and everyone's involvement is positive.
To my regret, growing the size of the cake has a negative side effect that cannot be ignored: great ideas in the realm of open source attract attention of people who want to consider this as their exclusive opportunity even though all was shared open source without restrictions. The free download of ideas, experiences and know-how causes a few individuals to desire an exclusive money making scheme. And, while we seldom like to talk about the negative, it is timely to address how to handle this unpleasant situation without tailspinning into the negative since this exploitation has popped up amongst people we thought were the protagonists of open source.
Let us take the case of Chido Govera who learned to farm mushrooms at the age of 11. Thanks to a small grant, she and a few fellow orphans were exposed to the opportunity to change their predicament from a victim to a community leader who knows how to provide food security and regain dignity. We learned to our dismay that these orphans are routinely abused. However, the moment they could provide for their food security, abuse was simply not tolerated anymore. Chido gained her freedom through perseverance and hard work with the support of a broad local and international community that believed in her. She explored the world of mushrooms from the recovery of wild species as a genetic resource, to tissue culture and simplified farming techniques, while dealing with her own acute post trauma stress. Chido concluded after more than a decade of exploration, that she wishes to dedicate her life to the plight of orphans in Africa, especially in her home country Zimbabwe.
Chido has a remarkable track record of learning, sharing and inspiring. Over the years, she construed a genuine name and fame for reaching out and doing good while overcoming personal traumas. She worked with schools in India, coffee farmers in Tanzania and Colombia, remote communities in Ghana while continuing her plight to learn more about mushrooms through intensive courses in China tailored to her interest in medicinal mushrooms. Chido wants to do good, and get results on the ground in the North and in the South. Through her hands-on training programs, Chido carefully saved her meagre earnings offering her the chance to invest in a dream: create a center for orphan training in Zimbabwe.
Now could you ever imagine that someone would like to appropriate this rich life experience and vision for the future through a trademark under the brand "Chido's Mushrooms", then convert this image into a franchise model without a detailed involvement of Chido, and ultimately sell it to customers with the promise that "one day" the community of the poor somewhere in the South will benefit from a fraction of the profits made with the rich? To our great regret, this is not a hypothetical case, this is a reality. Whereas Chido (and many of us) automatically believe in the good intentions of everyone, and automatically presuppose that whoever benefits from her goodness would reciprocate to her along the same lines, hard reality teaches us that this is unfortunately not always the case. Exceptions do make a rule.
While we are deeply affected by this failure to continue the chain of good, the question we need to raise after waking up to this harsh reality is "how can we avoid that those who enjoyed open source access to Chido (and others), would then not adhere to the same culture? How could we ensure that those who benefit will be equally generous? Chido will always be enchanted with a proposal to organize structure and discipline for the dozens of requests she receives to share her know-how she reaches a broader audience. Therefore Chido will be happy to explore cooperative schemes to train, share and even invest her own resources to create platforms for dissemination for the common good for more people.
Here is where a dilemma based on the negative experiences emerge: "Do you trust the people who engage with you to adopt the open source and sharing culture, or do you cast this relation from the beginning into a tight legal framework to protect the open source way of life?" We all sense that the legal hoolahoop starting with non-disclosure agreements, exclusivity arrangements and licensing of trademarks is counterproductive and undermines the enthusiastic approach where one would like to believe that the "other" understands the spirit and culture of Chido's approach.
To our regret - and Chido is not the only case - we realized over time (and too late) that the only interest of the supposed European partners was her name and fame. The ultimate goal of these partners was to embark on a business under the pretext of a social enterprise. The harsh reality was that their proposal was (and is) not social at all. How does one feel when the core of the business is reduced to abide a marketing strategy and a pre-determined financial plan that builds on exclusivity tightly enforced through legal frameworks like franchising contracts. Here emerges the first dichotomy: Chido (and the Blue Economy) believe that the core technology can be the same (i.e. farm mushrooms on coffee waste), however, the business deployment must adapt to the local opportunities and therefore can lead to totally different business models even in the same city. Thus, one cannot standardize our open source strategy in a franchise agreement.
When one realizes that a personalized approach is forcibly standardized by exploiting a passionate story of reaching out to orphans through a superficial communications strategy; when on top of that decisions in the platform are made without Chido's involvement while a slick strategy is pursued for one lady to position herself as the local social entrepreneur, then it is obvious that Chido is exploited. It is clear that there is no other option for Chido to separate herself from this misnomer. Hundreds of friends from Spain to the Netherlands and the UK witnessed the loss of ethics in this business venture embraced by a few and committed to liberate Chido from this corset.
Situations like these are hard - especially for those who believed to serve the common good, while generating personal revenue. Now this situation turns even harder to tolerate when those who exploit Chido are publicly exposed by Chido, and then by a closely knitted network of friends and supporters. The perpetrators find no smarter way to react against the demand to stop misusing name and fame than taking every person to court who speaks out against this 21st century type of slavery. The frustrations associated with the legal tirade against nearly a dozen people cannot be responded to by more legal counter-action in the name of defense. So how do you react? Can we rephrase this: how much justice through the courts do you seek for this blatant abuse? The key is first to stay true to your own ethics; and, second to learn the lessons associated with this unfortunate experience.
We must avoid turning bad behavior of the other into bad behavior by oneself. I believe that we do not need to seek justice ourselves, because justice will be done. Instead of trying to take the lead in responding to this form of aggression with another type of aggression, let us focus on doing more good. Whereas this approach of non- violence has been dismissed as naive, it is important that we embrace and reconfirm our set of ethics when we do not endorse an eye for an eye. We wish to ensure that all our energies remain clearly focussed on the positive. When those who put their own economic interests and egos above the commons we lose the positive energy of a few individuals we wrongly believed in. If on top of the loss of a few we were to channel the best of our combined energies into getting negative as well then the world is a net looser.
The open source community must deploy a response to these abuses by remaining absent from all forms of violence (even legal), and channel all energy towards the fast and broad implementation of more and better initiatives. More, the exploitation of trust by a few cannot be answered by withholding trust from new interested parties, nor descending on those who demonstrate a keen interest with strict legal documentation in order to avoid the type of abuse we have just suffered. We cannot divert scarce financial and human resources into non-productive activities, nor can we block the positive flow of energy. By successfully demonstrating how mushroom farming on coffee can be open source, and by expanding the references from a few here and there to hundreds and even thousands everywhere, then anyone in the universe will sense the positive energy that emerges from "Chido's Way" and the Blue Economy.
It is through the channelling of all this to the positive side with broader applications, that the "other" side will loose interest from the universe. Attention will be solely directed towards the best examples of Chido and will be attracted to her genuine and positive approach in spite of the abuse in her youth and the commercial abuse now in her adolescent years. The negative culture will become exposed and this business model will ultimately fail. The hardship of today, will become the anecdote of tomorrow. This is the best way justice is done - with a smile and without a loss of energy towards the good.