Patent information enables rainwater harvesting in Zambia

April 2017

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

The patent system promotes innovation by rewarding inventors for the time, energy and money they invest in coming up with new and improved technologies. But just as importantly, it ensures that information about technology is shared effectively.

Photo: iStock.com/dave_vall

Part of the deal when applying for a patent to protect a new technology is that each applicant has to tell the world what their technology can do and how it works. At a certain point in the patenting process, this information is published. So every time a patent is granted, the pool of publicly available technological information expands. This information can inspire new inventions and is also extremely valuable as a means of identifying technologies that can be adapted for use in resource-poor countries.

The knowledge and technology embedded in patent information can be used to tackle poverty, support economic growth and create employment opportunities without having to reinvent the wheel. Enhancing the capacity of least developed countries (LDCs) to access publicly available patent information can ensure that resource-poor communities get access to the technologies they need, and thereby significantly improve their livelihoods.

Helping Least Developed Countries benefit from patent information

In a move to demonstrate the benefits of strengthening use of IP-related and other technical knowledge in LDCs, WIPO recently developed and launched a pilot project under its Development Agenda. The project is being rolled out in three countries, Bangladesh, Nepal and Zambia. Its aim is to show how LDC governments can use IP-related information to identify and support the transfer of appropriate technologies and the social and economic benefits that can flow from this. Two priority areas for development have been identified in each country.

The water harvesting pilot project undertaken in Zambia is designed to demonstrate how resource-poor communities can use patent information to access the technologies they need to improve their food security and livelihoods (photo: Lloyd Tholle)

“Patent information is an invaluable resource, yet remains largely underexploited as a tool to tackle some of the major development challenges facing LDCs. This initiative seeks to demonstrate the practical value of such information to LDCs,” explains Kiflé Shenkoru, Director of WIPO’s Division for LDCs.

Such information can be used to improve agricultural productivity, for example. Poor food security is a constant threat to the livelihoods of millions living in resource-poor countries. But with the skills and wherewithal to access, manage and use IP-related and other technical information in the area of food production, these countries can boost yields through better soil management, irrigation and cultivation practices.

Harnessing IP to harvest rainwater

The water harvesting project undertaken in Zambia as part of the Development Agenda pilot illustrates the dramatic scope for improving the lives of rural communities. In collaboration with a range of national stakeholders, water harvesting and water purification were identified as priority areas for the project in Zambia. The latter is pending implementation but has significant potential to reduce debilitating and life-threatening waterborne diseases.

The country’s agricultural sector, made up largely of small-scale producers, is the mainstay of the national economy. But productivity levels are severely constrained by the absence of effective irrigation and water storage systems. At present, farming activity generally only occurs during and shortly after the rainy season, from October to April. It is largely suspended in the dry season, especially in higher areas due to water shortages. Despite reasonable annual rainfall (between 800mm and 1,000mm) and an abundance of ground and surface water resources, many communities still face severe water shortages because of poor water storage facilities. This often results in widespread hunger.

“The water harvesting project is making a real difference to the lives
of community members,” says Senior Chief Simamba XI (left). “Our
farmers can now grow crops and can feed their families and their
animals during the dry season. We are even thinking about starting
to use our water supplies to farm fish.” (Photo: Lloyd Tholle)

But what if smallholders could harvest the gallons of rainwater that fall each year? “If properly harvested, such rainwater could go a long way towards increasing productivity in the agricultural sector, resulting in improved livelihoods for millions of small-scale farmers,” says Allan Phiri, one of the national experts working on the project. However, the practice of rainwater harvesting in Zambia is not widespread, and where it does occur it is often inadequate and inefficient.

Implementation of the project is the responsibility of a multi-stakeholder National Expert Group (NEG) made up of senior government officials as well as representatives from business (including Mr. Phiri), academia and development agencies. The NEG’s role is to select one or a number of appropriate technologies to improve rainwater harvesting in Zambia, to prepare a business plan for their application and use, and to identify sources of funding and production know-how.

With the support of the District Commissions and the local Chief, the project was initially rolled out in the drought-stricken area of Simamba Village in Siavonga, in Zambia’s Southern Province. A local committee was formed including local government officials, local NGOs, community representatives and farmers. The committee worked closely with the project’s national experts, and continues to play a key role in the project’s practical implementation.

An assessment of local conditions and existing water storage practices revealed that water seepage and evaporation cause significant water losses in traditional storage systems.

Once the NEG had identified and evaluated the community’s specific needs, WIPO undertook an international search for state-of-the-art water storage technologies. The aim was to identify technologies that “would enable farmers living on higher ground to carry out irrigation activities even during the dry season and to earn an income throughout the year,” notes Mr. Phiri.

The WIPO search generated 28 patented technologies, each with the potential to ensure a continuous supply of water. Each of these technologies was evaluated to determine its suitability for local adoption. National experts were clear that “the chosen technology should be easy to adopt, simple in design and inexpensive to produce," notes Mr. Phiri. The use of locally available materials was another important factor as this would help ensure the technology’s affordability and broad uptake. With these factors in mind, the technology selected by NEG was adapted to the community’s needs.  This essentially involved substituting more expensive elements of the technology with locally available materials.

Water seepage and evaporation cause significant water losses in traditional storage systems used by communities in the Simamba Village area of Zambia (photo: iStock.com/Robert_Ford).

“Once employed, the technology will allow farmers in groups of 10 families (around 60 people) to grow vegetables and other crops on patches of land of one lime (an area of 50m x 50m) each,” Mr. Phiri explains. The idea is that each family will own a 10,000 liter-capacity tank to capture and store rainwater during the rainy season. “The proposed technology has never been used in Zambia. Once the prototype is successfully implemented, we expect this technology will be quickly and widely disseminated,” Mr. Phiri notes.

A locally owned solution

Day-to-day management of the tanks rests with the community under the supervision of the chief or headman, he explains. Ownership of the project by the local community is key to its sustainability and long-term success. By our calculations the project will yield a rate of return of more than 30 percent. This will make a huge difference to the lives of these householders,” says Mr. Shenkoru. Mr. Phiri agrees, noting that in addition to improving rural incomes, the project will generate employment, alleviate poverty and improve food security.

“When the people from WIPO first came to our community, we were quite skeptical because we have been cheated in the past, but the water harvesting project is making a real difference to the lives of community members. Our farmers can now grow crops and can feed their families and their animals during the dry season. We are even thinking about starting to use our water supplies to farm fish,” says Senior Chief Simamba XI.

More widespread adoption of the technology depends on securing the funds to replicate the project in other communities. That will take time. But the value of the exercise goes well beyond the direct benefits to householders in the Simamba Village area.

“This was a very important educational project,” says Lloyd Thole, Former Assistant Registrar of Zambia’s Patents and Companies Registration Agency (PACRA). “It is clear testimony to the importance of patents and technologies and their use in implementing different types of projects in the developing world. There is no need to reinvent the wheel as technologies are already available. All that is needed is to transfer and adapt them to the local situation.”

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