The story of Abdellahi Ally, a Mauritanian citizen, is a prime example of someone who has succeeded through perseverance, by asking for information and guidance and by making use of intellectual property. It shows also that cases of success are not confined to America or Europe alone, but that an African business or individual can just as well achieve success through development and marketing that takes due account of intellectual property rights.
Having been brought up in a poor family in a small village in Mauritania where date palms abound, unschooled and unemployed, Abdellahi Ally invented a recipe in 1987 for the manufacture of a date preserve using only fruit, without any added sugar or preserving agents. Abdellahi gave a few pots away to family and friends as gifts, and all of them liked the preserve very much.
It was his father who gave him the idea of producing a certain quantity and marketing it. Abdellahi had no financial reserves, so he went off in search of an associate who could lend him the funds with which to purchase ingredients, the packaging material and the equipment necessary for making the product and also to build up a distribution network.
When he arrived in Nouakchott, hoping to find an associate more easily in the capital, he was however all the more frustrated, as he failed to find the necessary means of setting up the little business that he dreamed of. So he decided to distribute a few pots of his preserve to earn his living, as he had done previously in his village. He collected empty pots in rubbish bins, sterilized them and then filled them with the date preserve in a little workshop. Gradually he became known in the area, and started to sell more and more to small shops and groceries. One day he received a large order from a supermarket, and then very quickly succeeded in finding an associate prepared to invest money. This development excited him, but he did have some misgivings:
- first he was afraid that, if he had to share his takings with an associate, the latter would take over the production and distribution;
- he was also concerned that, when his preserve was sold to a very large number of consumers, someone would have the idea of analyzing his recipe and copying it.
And yet he could not do without the financial assistance if he was to produce a sufficient quantity to meet the demands of the supermarket.
Abdellahi approached the Ministry of Industry and a number of friends and professional advisers on the subject. They advised him to protect his manufacturing processes under intellectual property law, and to do that by approaching the African Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI).
OAPI suggested the following:
(a) Abdellahi's processes for the manufacture of his preserve, provided that they showed sufficient inventiveness, did constitute patentable subject matter.
A patent confers exclusive rights in an invention. An invention is a product or process that offers a new way of doing something or provides a new technical solution to a problem.
(b) Manufacturing processes can also be protected as business secrets.
Generally speaking, any confidential business information that gives a company a competitive advantage may be considered a business secret. Business secrets include manufacturing secrets (like the recipe for the preserve), and also trade secrets (like the sales and distribution methods, the consumer profiles, the advertising strategies and the lists of suppliers and customers).
Unauthorized use of such information by persons other than Abdellahi would be considered an unfair practice and a violation of his business secret. However, certain conditions have to be met for the legal provisions that protect business secrets to apply. The most important are the following:
- the information has to be secret; once the secret is disclosed, anyone can access it and is free to use it;
- it has to have commercial value due to its secrecy;
- reasonable arrangements must have been made to keep it secret (non-disclosure agreements, for instance).
The protection of business secrets offers the following advantages:
- it takes place without registration or registration fees, whereas patents have to be filed, and the registration fees can be quite high;
- it is unlimited in time, whereas patents have a life of up to 20 years;
- it involves no formalities, whereas patent protection requires disclosure of the information to a government authority.
Such protection for business secrets thus seemed satisfactory in the event of Abdellahi joining up with a partner and entering into non-disclosure agreements. That did not however solve the problem of consumers being able to analyze the preserve, as the protection of an invention as a business secret does not give the exclusive right to prevent third parties from putting it to commercial use.
Abdellahi therefore had to make a choice of either patenting the invention or keeping it as a business secret: if he did not patent his invention someone else, who might later develop an identical or equivalent invention, could do so and then prevent him from marketing his preserve, or charge him a fee for the use of the other invention.
Competitors could also be looking to take advantage of Abdellahi's invention. As the date preserve was successful, someone else would be tempted to produce it without settling the royalties payable to its creator and to sell it, perhaps even at a lower price. Without a patent, therefore, Abdellahi was reluctant to disclose his invention to a partner for fear that he would take it from him. If on the other hand his invention was patented, he could license it for payment, and so take advantage of his intellectual property without losing his ownership of the manufacturing processes.
After having weighed the advantages and drawbacks of the various courses of action that he was willing to take, Abdellahi decided on patenting.
OAPI had advised him to approach a consultant, so that a full search could be made to determine whether his idea was truly inventive. If it was, the consultant would then have to draw up the patent application.
In any event, before filing a patent application, it is very important not to disclose or publish the contents, which would cancel out from the outset any possibility of obtaining a patent.
Subsequently, Abdellahi's patent proved extremely useful in attracting credit. Indeed developments followed in quick succession.
The fact of having obtained a patent for the manufacturing processes of the preserve built up the trust of prospective investors; in a relatively short time Abdellahi had identified bank sources of financial support and also partners interested in marketing his products;
- Abdellahi became a member of the Association des inventeurs en Mauritanie.
- In September 2000 he was invited by his country's Government to take part in the National Invention Fair, whereupon the panel of judges awarded him the first prize for invention and technology;
- On October 16, 2000, on the occasion of World Food Day, Abdellahi received the gold medal of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as part of its TéléFood 2000 campaign1;
- In December 2000 the Mauritanian State invited Abdellahi to take part in the second African Invention and Technological Innovation Fair held in Lomé, Togo, as a result of which he won a medal, namely the prize of the Geneva International Invention Fair for the best invention likely to interest the international market;
- He was interviewed by Mauritanian and French press and television;
- Finally, OAPI gave him the support with which he was able to take part in the Geneva International Invention Fair again in 2002.
In the meantime Abdellahi has been able to enlarge his workshop. Now he produces the date preserve in larger quantities, with the aid of a partner and financial support from the banks and the prices that he has won. He frequently receives orders from companies with which he has become acquainted at various fairs.
Abdellahi is planning to market his product abroad, notably in the main date-producing countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq and Israel, and with that in mind he is considering the grant of a technical license which would enable him to authorize companies established in those countries (the licensees) to use his manufacturing process against payment of an agreed royalty. He has therefore taken steps to file patent applications in the countries to which he wishes to export or grant licenses.
Apart from that Abdellahi has also contacted a specialized company which is helping him devise a suitable trademark for his preserve. He wants it to be a mark that is easy to read, spell, pronounce and remember in all languages, and essentially one that has sufficient distinctiveness to qualify for registration and protection by OAPI and trademark offices abroad.