Making innovation work for a green future in Nigeria

August 2021

By Susan Chioma Omeh*, University of Nigeria

*Winner of the 2020 World Intellectual Property Day Essay Competition organized by the WIPO Office in Nigeria.

A green future and a sustainable tomorrow depend on the intellectual efforts we make today. (Photo: Getty Images / E+ / PeopleImages)

In a world with an environment that is sinking as a result of climate change, biodiversity loss and a stepwise annihilation of plant and animal life, Nigeria is not performing well. According to the World Resources Institute Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (WRI CAIT), Nigeria’s greenhouse gas emissions (a major indicator of climate change) sits at around 89 percent of total global emissions every year.

When we create a balanced intellectual property system that encourages and protects innovation, we unleash the creativity needed to develop cleaner, greener and efficient technologies1.

Amy Dietterich, Director, Global Challenges Division, World Intellectual Property Organization.

In 1991, the southern part of Lake Chad, which lies within Nigeria’s territory and covered an area of over 40,000 square kilometers, dried up due to climate change; the lake now covers a mere 1,300 square kilometers. The situation is expected to get worse: the Nigeria Meteorological Agency predicts massive increases in malaria, floods, droughts and heat waves due to environmental pollution. It is against this backdrop that the World Intellectual Property Organization launched its WIPO GREEN initiative in 2013, to support the transition to a low-carbon future using intellectual property (IP) rights and innovation.

In 1991, the southern part of Lake Chad, which lies within Nigeria’s territory and covered an area of over 40,000 square kilometers. As a result of climate change, the lake now covers a mere 1,300 square kilometers. (Photo: iStock / Getty Images Plus / Liudmila Shevaga)

Robust IP systems are propelling green innovations to build a healthier world through the protection and policy measures they offer; the role of a robust IP system in driving eco-innovation, and ultimately a green future, in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized.

Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, names and images used in commerce and is protected in law, for example, by patents, copyright and trademarks. This essay looks at the confluence between IP and a green future, and highlights how innovation can be directed towards achieving environmental sustainability for Nigeria and the huge role played by the IP system in making this a reality.

The role of IP in achieving a green future

In the main, it is time for Nigeria to move from a formal patent administration to a substantive system through the introduction of a pre-grant opposition mechanism. At present, Nigeria runs a highly restrictive and formal patent administration. Unlike many other countries, the patentability of the technologies outlined in patent applications is generally not examined for substance by the Nigerian Patent Registry unless failure to address patentable subject matter is apparent from submitted documents. This results in the registration of anything that conforms to the letter of the law without consideration of its practicability and/or negative impact on the Nigerian socio-economic landscape.

It is time for Nigeria to move from a formal patent administration to a substantive system through the introduction of a pre-grant opposition mechanism. (Photo: iStock / Getty Images Plus / simpson33)

Putting the right mechanics in place

A pre-grant patent opposition mechanism is an administrative procedure that allows any third party to file evidence with a patent office stating the reasons why a patent should not be granted for a given innovation. Apart from using this mechanism to protect interested parties claiming exclusive right to their innovations, it could be merged with the substantive patent system to allow oppositions based on public interest, on the basis that they do not promote public health, a healthy environment, industrial growth or the welfare of society. Such systems have spurred recognition and protection of eco-innovations in countries like Australia, Botswana and India in a big way. Merging a pre-grant patent opposition mechanism with the substantive patent administration would be practicable in Nigeria if:

  1. policies are introduced to enable third parties to submit public interest-based oppositions rapidly and without cost (i.e. free of charge). Such oppositions would need to be checked to prevent misuse;
  2. expert examiners are attached to the Patent Office;
  3. a time limit for filing of such oppositions is established;
  4. the public has easy access to patent information; and
  5. temporary safeguards are put in place for inventions for which oppositions are filed.

Time to support eco-innovation in Nigeria

IP systems and policy measures that encourage innovation have fueled green innovation and influenced research and national development; it is time to put into place an incentive-based IP system that supports eco-innovation in Nigeria.

In 2009, the United States and the United Kingdom accelerated an eco-patent commons to support the use of existing green innovations, to licence such technology free of charge and to accelerate the granting of patents for eco-innovations in these countries.

An incentive-based IP system for eco-inventions has been a major catalyst for eco-innovations. Examples include, Ecover, a laundry and hand-wash liquid product, which uses biodegradable and recycled packaging and Futurecraft.Loop, fully recyclable performance footwear designed to drastically reduce plastic waste.

It would also be advantageous if the Nigerian IP system were to subsidize use of digital time-stamping services. This would help innovators create evidence of the existence of their digital assets, mitigate the risk of future legal disputes and lay a foundation for any eventual registration of an IP right.

IP systems and policy measures that encourage innovation have fueled green innovation and influenced research and national development; it is time to put into place an incentive-based IP system that supports eco-innovation in Nigeria.

The availability of research grants for green innovators would help reduce possible risks of low returns on investments. Such grants may be feasible if the Federal Government were to liaise with the African Development Bank, which is committed to driving eco-innovations. The African Development Bank recently doubled its support for climate finance by USD 25 billion and has spurred the creation of clean power in Morocco and Kenya. The advantages of an incentive-based IP system are immeasurable and promise to drive the exploitation of innovation and its global dissemination and improvement.

Nigeria is an importer of innovation; it is therefore pertinent that the country’s IP system provides for the protection of eco-friendly innovations and actively seeks to attract such innovation to Nigeria. The principal legislation regulating the transfer of technology to Nigeria is the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion Act (NOTAP Act). That Act (Section 6) does not currently require that the transfer of innovations to Nigeria is eco-friendly before they are registered.

A revision of the NOTAP Act to address this and a more stringent penalty for non-registration would focus attention on the need to prioritize the importation of green technologies into the country. At present, the non-registration of an agreement for technology transfer into Nigeria bars payment to the technology provider rather than the abrogation of its underlying contractual obligations. This has been the subject of heavy criticism by IP lawyers in Nigeria who believe that the absence of a stringent sanction in this regard defeats the purpose of the Act, namely, the transfer of safer technologies into Nigeria

The move to protect international and well-known trademarks in the proposed Trademarks Bill (Section 58), regardless of whether or not they are registered in Nigeria, should be extended to the Patent Act, with a pre-condition that such innovations must be eco-friendly to qualify for protection . Such moves will help ensure that only contracts involving the transfer of eco-innovations will be registered under the NOTAP Act and ultimately protected and used in Nigeria (under the Patent Act) regardless of whether or not such eco-innovations are registered as patents in Nigeria.

A simplified registration system is required

In Nigeria, we must work towards an IP system that simplifies the registration process for innovations in Nigeria and provides for IP financing.

IP financing is the use of IP assets (trademarks, design rights, patents and copyright) to gain access to credits. It is essential for funding the growth of innovation, supporting better protection of such innovation under IP legislation and spurring its uptake and use.

Simplifying IP processes in Nigeria and making them easier to navigate would be a good starting point. Registering a trademark or a patent in Nigeria can take more than a year and is an arduous process. To make the Nigerian IP system more practicable, policymakers may consider establishing a Nigerian Patent and Designs Commission, along the lines of the Trademarks Commission. They may also consider attaching pro bono patent and trademark lawyers to these Commissions to guide innovators through the registration process and advise them on feasible IP financing strategies.

Plant variety protection: a must

Finally, there is also a need to widen the scope of the Nigerian IP system to include protection for plant breeders' rights. These rights aim at protecting innovations of new varieties of plants with a view to encouraging agricultural sustainability, a healthy environment and food security, particularly in the context of climate change.

There is also a need to widen the scope of the Nigerian IP system to include protection for plant breeders' rights. Statistics show that expansion and protection of new varieties of plants in Nigeria would cut carbon emissions by up to 30 percent. (Photo: Getty Images / E+ / Claudiad)

Statistics show that expansion and protection of new varieties of plants in Nigeria would cut carbon emissions by up to 30 percent, because plants act as carbon sinks. Nigeria does not have an IP regime for plant varieties protection (PVP). Attempts are being made to amend the IP legislation, but the current version of the Industrial Property Commission Bill before the National Assembly does not include provisions to protect plant varieties, farmers' rights, or private use/research exceptions to breeders' rights. In comparison, nations with PVP-based IP systems, such as like Belgium, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States, have recorded laudable use of their agricultural sector to spur cleaner environment. Their experience suggests Nigeria can benefit from joining the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants.

The gravity of the environmental challenges facing our world cannot be overemphasized. We have slept on the need to keep it healthy. That’s a fact. A green future and a sustainable tomorrow depend on the intellectual efforts we make today. Beyond the promise that an effective and robust IP system can foster green innovation for a sustainable tomorrow, we all have a great deal to do to make this green future a reality.

By introducing plant breeders' right, tilting towards a pre-grant opposition mechanism; driving an incentive-based IP system; facilitating the transfer of eco-friendly innovations and simplifying our patent and trademarks protection system, Nigeria will be handing down to our children and grandchildren a nation filled with peace and an unhindered and sustainable environment.

About the WIPO National IP Essay Competition 2020

On April 26, 2020, the WIPO Nigeria Office launched the maiden edition of the WIPO National IP Essay Competition as part of its 2020 World Intellectual Property Day celebrations in Nigeria, on the theme “Innovate for a Green Future”.

With a key objective of promoting research and learning in the field of intellectual property (IP), the competition was open to all students attending tertiary institutions in Nigeria. Entrants were required to submit an essay of 1500 words addressing the theme “Making Innovation work for a Green Future in Nigeria”. The competition attracted 262 entries from 59 tertiary institutions and 51 distinct disciplines.

An expert panel of 15 judges was appointed by the WIPO Nigeria Office to assess the entries. They identified 15 winners each of whom received WIPO Certificates of Achievement, scholarships to undertake WIPO Distance Learning courses, professional IP internship or innovation fellowship opportunities, a WIPO sponsored IP Study Tour to Abuja, and WIPO resources and materials. Additionally, the first and second runners-up received scholarships to participate in the WIPO Summer School in South Africa and the overall winner, Susan Chioma Omeh, from the University of Nigeria, received a WIPO scholarship to participate in the blended Advanced International Certificate Course on IP Asset Management (AICC). Ms. Chioma Omeh’s winning entry is published below.

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