Current Affairs

How to plug into huge global patent opportunities

How to plug into huge global patent opportunities
  • PublishedNovember 1, 2017

Innovations rule the world today and patents protect the right of the innovators, encouraging more innovation. However, Africa is lagging far behind in patent applications, making only 0.6% of the total. A chronic lack of awareness of the process is largely responsible for this state of affairs. But the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) is on a mission to change all this. Susan Mwiti reports.

For the first nine months of 2017, the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) has been holding national roving seminars for academic institutions in its 19 member states in pursuit of its strategic plan of using intellectual property to foster economic growth in Africa.

Held under the theme, “Fostering creativity and innovation for economic growth and development in Africa”, the seminars have focused on sensitisation, capacity building, and awareness creation on topical Intellectual Property (IP) issues.

The seminars have been designed to ensure that institutions of higher learning, where the highest number of innovations are created, not only have IP policies in place but also understand the acquisition of IP rights via national, regional, and international routes.

According to ARIPO’s director general, Fernando dos Santos: “We are directing the intellectual property gospel towards universities and research institutions to target the very generators of IP where over 90% of knowledge is created.”

The topics discussed at the seminars include: principles and concepts of intellectual property, basic principles of patent drafting, the role of copyright and related rights enforcement in the digital era, and “beyond publish or perish” – strategic IP asset management and fostering the use and exploitation of IP in universities.

So far, three such seminars have been held in Swaziland, Zambia and Sierra Leone, and more are to follow till the end of the year.

Before these seminars, ARIPO had also held other seminars for national IP offices and companies involved in IP. The focus, equally, had been on awareness creation, laws, building and providing support for national institutional frameworks, and creating platforms for linkages between member states.

ARIPO has been driving the recognition of IP rights in Africa for several reasons. One, lately, Africa has been on the path of ensuring that its citizens come up with their own needs-based innovations for a prosperous continent. Climbing the innovation ladder therefore should lead to economic growth and people-centred development. ARIPO’s initiatives are therefore in tandem with the greater scheme of things in Africa.

For example, in line with AU’s Agenda 2063, African leaders have pledged to accelerate growth, development, and prosperity on the continent going forward to 2063. In this regard, Africans have to protect their innovations by registering their IP rights (which include patents, trademarks, and copyright) so that they can earn income from them.

ARIPO also supports and recognises the need for an African transition led by innovations and a knowledge-based economy. Some of the remarkable innovations that have come out of Africa in recent years include mobile money transfer solutions that have effectively “banked the unbanked”.

The most outstanding and well known example is M-Pesa, a mobile payments scheme, offering a banking system based on mobile phones. Launched in Kenya in 2007, it has now spread to over 30 countries and there are an estimated 30m users.

The success of such innovations has been possible because of the high mobile phone penetration in developing countries, which jumped from 60% in 2003 to 90% in 2010. The IP spin-offs that arise from commercialising these technologies are staggering.

ARIPO is therefore helping such start-ups to gain credibility and scale up market entry points, by encouraging them to protect their inventions regionally and internationally.

Another big initiative is the Botswana Innovation Hub that developed the country’s first Science and Technology Park. The park creates an environment that supports start-ups and existing local companies, as well as attracting international companies and institutions to develop and grow competitive, technology-driven and knowledge-based businesses there.

ARIPO is in the process of establishing strategic engagements, cooperation agreements, and partnerships with such institutions beyond the development of human resources in member states.

Most African countries are currently at a stage of technological development characterised by a reasonable level of research by universities and research institutions. As links between universities and industry are peaking, there is a rise in awareness of the importance of IP rights by researchers and the public.

However, a lot still needs to be done. There is still an inadequate pool of IP professionals on the continent. Thus, for the past 10 years, ARIPO, together with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe, have offered a Masters of Intellectual Property (MIP) degree course in a bid to grow the number of IP experts in Africa.

So far, 251 students from across the continent have graduated from the MIP course and are expected to lead the IP initiatives, shape the private sector, and push for relevant IP policies in their respective countries.

ARIPO has also established a centre of excellence, the ARIPO Academy, at its headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe. The Academy offers a wide range of capacity- building activities to member states and Africa in general to raise awareness and produce the human resources that will drive the IP agenda for Africa.

The organisation is also engaging with member states to adopt IP in the field of genetic resources in agriculture and other sectors. In 2015, this led to the adoption of ARIPO’s new Arusha Plant Varieties Protocol, which provides member states with a regional plant variety protection system that recognises the need to provide farmers with improved varieties of plants to ensure sustainable agricultural production.

While giving incentives to plant variety innovators, the Protocol also promotes increased harvests, pest-and-disease-free seeds, and resistant varieties of crops.

Africa lagging behind on patents

Sadly, if the innovations being generated in Africa are reflected by the number of IP applications being received by ARIPO, then Africa still has a long way to go to attain economic growth from intellectual property. According to WIPO global statistics on patent applications, in 2016 Africa only filed 0.6% of the world’s total patent, copyright, and trademark applications. Globally, 2.57m patent applications were filed in 2016 and 9.45m patents were in force.

It is worth stating that Africa’s share of worldwide patent filings has not changed since 2003. For 2017, however, ARIPO reports a slump in utility model (UM) applications. A utility model is an exclusive right granted for an invention, which for a limited period of time allows the right holder to prevent others from commercially using the invention without authorisation.

UMs are sometimes referred to as “petty patents”. For years, they have been the low-hanging fruit for regional inventors as the mechanism is less costly and not as stringent as the patent system in terms of protection requirements.

ARIPO is however confident that in line with its Value & Growth Strategic Plan, 2016-2020, a lot will be achieved in Africa, especially by working with academic institutions to ensure that they have IP policies in place that foster creativity and innovation for economic sustainability. Through capacity building and awareness creation, ARIPO is determined to take its rightful place in driving Africa’s development.       

Written By
New African

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