Raising IP Awareness in Africa: A Call to Action
By Dr. John O. Kakonge, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations Office in Geneva and the World Trade Organization (WTO)
There is a commonly held assumption, in Africa at least, that only educated people can protect an idea or use the intellectual property (IP) system to do so. As a result, although Africa is home to many talented creators, their works are largely undervalued and unprotected. If Africa is to fully benefit from its wealth of creative and innovative talent and take its rightful place on the world IP stage, Africans need to fully recognize and celebrate the talents of their innovators and creators.
Every once in a while stories of African ingenuity surface in the international press or on social media networks. For example, thanks to social media we heard about the smart ideas of Richard Turere, a young Masai boy, who saved his family's cattle from predators by devising an ingenious warning device known as Lion Lights. Thanks to the media attention this story attracted, Richard was recently invited to speak at a TED conference in California. On the strength of his work he has also won a scholarship to continue his studies. His school is also now exploring ways to protect his innovation using the IP system.
We need to seek out and celebrate such examples of ingenuity. This is essential if we are to improve awareness of the social, economic and cultural value of the continent’s innovative and creative resources. It is also critical to our success in building a sustainable knowledge-based economy.
Low-levels of IP awareness among the public mean that that neither breach of copyright nor plagiarism is considered wrong and there is little realization that it is unlawful. Law enforcement officers are swimming against a tide of public ambivalence when it comes to IP, which makes their task all the more difficult. Many individuals are driven by an overriding concern to make money from an idea regardless of where the idea comes from. They care little about the rights (economic or moral) of the person or group that first came up with and developed the idea. All too often, the burden of proof falls on the inventor or creator to establish the legal rights in their work. This is an uphill battle that puts a drain on their time, energy and financial resources.
Factors fuelling piracy
This general lack of public IP awareness has fuelled a booming illegal trade in pirated CDs, DVDs and the like. Hawkers touting their illegal wares are a common sight on street corners, at bus and train stations and in restaurants.
On the supply side, widespread youth unemployment is fuelling this illegal activity. On the demand side a lack of consumer purchasing power makes pirated rip-offs a cheap and attractive option. As such transactions are generally not considered a threat to public security some African governments tend to turn a blind eye to such illegal trade. And for their part, creators are unable to act to put a brake on such activities as they too are hamstrung by a chronic lack of awareness about the IP rights that flow from their work.
Transforming lives with IP awareness
In Africa, IP has the potential to help reduce poverty, create employment and accelerate economic growth. Translating this promise into reality, however, requires a concerted effort by African governments to invest in IP education and to support the implementation of comprehensive public awareness campaigns to boost understanding of the system and its potential benefits.
The experience of Kenyan carpenter Horace Mate illustrates the transformative potential of effective IP awareness campaigns. Mr. Mate works in Kenya’s extensive informal sector – known locally as jua kali (“hot sun”). A gifted and highly creative craftsman, he has produced throughout his career, a number of original and attractive furniture designs. However, he was never able to reap the full economic benefits of his work because as soon as he started making and selling a new design other carpenters would copy it and undersell him.
One morning, however, as he passed along Mombasa Road in Nairobi, he saw an advertisement outlining the mission and services of the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (KIPI). This prompted him to visit KIPI. On the strength of that visit he now understands just how much he can gain from identifying his IP and protecting it. His original creations are now properly protected and registered as industrial designs and he is starting to reap the economic rewards of his highly skilled creative work. To date, any infringing activity has been effectively quashed using cease and desist notices. More importantly, Mr Mate now realizes he must respect the creations of others. This is a small but critical step towards building IP awareness within his community. Mr. Mate’s experience is just one example of the benefits that can flow from reaching out to local artisans to inform them about how the IP system can transform their business prospects.
Financing intellectual property
While there is no shortage of entrepreneurs in Africa, there are few opportunities for companies to expand or develop their innovative ideas. Africa does not have groups of financiers ready to invest in innovative Africa-grown ideas. The continent’s venture capital market is poorly developed.
With the exception of South Africa, the number of patent applications - a traditional marker of innovative activity - recorded by African inventors is woefully low, reflecting the need to actively invest in developing effective national innovation ecosystems across the continent.
In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, IP is not generally recognized – by financial institutions or right owners - as a valuable capital asset that can be used as collateral to obtain business finance.
Kenya’s poorly developed innovation ecosystem means that the economic potential of the country’s promising small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector is underexploited. It is widely understood that SMEs are important creators of IP and users of the IP system. Left unprotected, a promising invention or service may be lost to larger competitors with the means to more effectively commercialize them. An effective IP –focused business strategy is crucial in deterring potential infringement, turning ideas into business assets with real market value and funding follow-on innovation.
Japan’s policy approach to SMEs offers a sterling example of the merits of implementing policies that support SMEs and venture companies. It is based on recognition of the role of SMEs in developing the infrastructure and technology (including processing materials and components) required by industry and in promoting local economies through job creation, and IP creation.
Similarly, direct government funding or support for artists is scarce. For example, in Kenya, while traditional industries, such as tourism and agriculture, continue to attract government support, there is little political will to develop the country’s creative industries despite their huge growth potential.
Building-up Africa’s IP capacity will take time, energy and leadership. In Kenya, for example, we need to improve the IP knowledge and expertise of KIPI staff so they are able to deliver an improved quality of service. The services and assistance of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the African Regional Property and Industrial Organization (ARIPO) have a key role to play in enabling African countries to upgrade the skills and technical knowledge of IP office personnel.
Progress in building IP awareness needs to be steady and incremental. As a first step, much can be achieved by focusing on rolling out IP education initiatives at locations where generators of IP operate. IP offices, such as KIPI, need to target innovators and encourage them to use the facilities they offer, including access to IP databases, many of which are free of charge.
Awareness can be created in multiple ways: through workshops and training programs; by publicizing the services of IP lawyers; and by disseminating well-crafted publicity materials and posting timely and accurate information on internet websites. Similarly, much can be gained by exchanging experiences and views with other emerging economies, such as Brazil, China and India, where rates of IP use are on the rise.
Most emerging and fast-evolving industries, including the internet and the social media platforms, are characterized by their high IP content. In the era of the knowledge economy, the IP system is the mechanism by which creators, inventors, companies and countries can add value to their creative and innovative resources and thereby spur economic growth. The challenge for African policymakers is to ensure that IP issues move up the political agenda so that the necessary resources and leadership are available to support the development of an effective and sustainable innovation ecosystem. While innovators may be found everywhere, those who understand how to protect the IP they create are few and far between – particularly in Africa. If Africa is to advance in technology, science, design and other fields to take its rightful place in the world, we must overcome this hurdle.
Today, governments have unprecedented opportunities to influence and guide public opinion through radio, television and social media platforms. Few – particularly in Africa – take full advantage of these opportunities. We need to embrace these tools, showcase and celebrate our ingenious inventors and creators and explain how IP can transform the lives of ordinary people on the street. We need to target different communities – designers, musicians, artisans, entrepreneurs, teachers, researchers and policymakers – to demonstrate the transformative power of innovation and the benefits that flow from understanding IP and its strategic use. The road ahead is long and the challenges are complex, but we have the raw materials – a huge pool of talented and imaginative young people – to tackle and resolve the many challenges that Africans face daily and to achieve sustained economic growth and social and cultural development.