Africa and intellectual property rights: Where do we stand?


In the wake of last week’s World IP Day, Microsoft 4Afrika’s corporate affairs director Louis Otieno explores the state of intellectual property (IP) rights in Africa. Where do we stand? What are we doing right? And what can we do better to foster more innovation-driven economies?

It has been 17 years since World IP Day was first launched. The world – and more specifically, technology – has changed significantly in this timespan. In April 2000, there were no smartphones. There was no 3D printing, Wikipedia or even YouTube.

Yet, the occasion of World IP Day is more relevant today than ever before.

With the creation of accessible tools and mediums like smartphones and YouTube, there has come a whole new wave of creativity and innovation. Whether developers are using mobile services to build new e-health apps, or artists are recording and uploading original songs to YouTube, IP – from inventions to art – is being created and shared every day.

A valuable commodity

A recent survey in South Africa found that, out of 200 technology startups, 43 per cent have their own product or IP. IP has become one of the most valuable commodities in the Information Age. However, while developed economies have benefited from the creation of wealth around IP, the same cannot be said for Africa. At least not yet.

This is not for a lack of IP frameworks, authoritative bodies and laws. In the 2017 US Chamber International IP Index, which measures the IP environments of 45 economies globally, Kenya ranks 31st – the IP leader among African economies – followed by South Africa (33) and Nigeria (35). All three countries are credited for having the basic IP standards in place.

Africa’s IP obstacles

Where African economies fall short is in two predominant areas.

First, there is a lack of legal enforcement of IP rights. This results in high online piracy rates and large amounts of counterfeit goods. Without this enforcement, entrepreneurs and developers may not feel motivated to innovate, lacking incentive to pursue creative activities that change lives and create jobs.

Second, simply not enough people in Africa are registering their IP. In South Africa, there are an average of 900 patent applications filed per month. However, approximately 60 to 70 per cent of these applications originate from non-South African companies.

The current local systems in place to register IP are inaccessible, time consuming and difficult to use. This is why, in 2015, Microsoft 4Afrika partnered with the Kenya Copyright Board, to develop an online IP registration system.

The system, which allows people to register remotely, has already resulted in a 100 per cent increase in applications – and is cited by the US Chamber International IP Index as a key area of strength in Kenya’s IP climate ranking. We are currently working with the Common Market for East and Southern Africa to drive adoption of this system in 18 other countries across the continent.

The importance of IP protection for startups

For a startup or small business – which Africa looks to for economic and social development – registering IP as soon as possible is vital. It is a key step in taking a product or service to market. Furthermore, economies with good IP protection are 45 per cent more likely to attract venture capital and private equity funding.

If an idea or invention, which would have qualified for patent protection, falls into the public domain too early, it becomes very difficult to enforce and protect. As Liz Lenjo, advocate of the High Court of Kenya and IP lawyer, advises: “More trainings and health-checks on IP, as well as emphasis to entrepreneurs on the importance of legal counsel when in business, need to be done. For those concerned about costs, protective lawyering is far cheaper than defensive lawyering.”

As general awareness around IP increases, so will the demand for proper enforcement.

Towards a more enabling environment

Despite these flaws and challenges, many African economies are focused on and open to reviewing and improving their IP rights climates. South Africa’s National Treasury, for example, announced in its 2017 Budget Review that it would be relaxing IP exchange control, making it easier for startups to expand and seek funding outside of South Africa.

In late 2016, Kenya also established the Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expressions Act 2016, which seeks to enable communities to control and profit from the use of culturally significant knowledge and expressions. Africa is rich in traditional knowledge. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 90 per cent of food in sub-Saharan Africa is produced using customary farming practices. If this knowledge is captured and protected correctly, it could foster incredible innovation of great economical value.

Both laws, of course, come with their own complications, cautions and counter-arguments. However, what is important is that governments and authorities have recognised the importance of regularly reviewing and optimising laws to keep pace with the current challenges IP owners face. They have also recognised the importance of not always following the same methods used by developed countries, or imposing tight regulations that end up hampering innovation, but rather figuring out what is most conducive for Africa.

The benefits of IP rights

According to the 2017 IP Index, economies with robust IP protection see 80 per cent more knowledge-based, technological and creative outputs; are 75 per cent more likely to have larger and more dynamic content and media sectors; are 68 per cent more likely to have supportive business climates; have 40 per cent greater capacity to generate value from ICT; and are 50 per cent more attractive to foreign investors. The benefits are enormous.

If Africa hopes to achieve its sustainable development goals, establishing a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy is essential – and we are at a pivotal point in doing so. With the youth bulge in Africa, improving literacy rates and increased exposure to technology in day-to-day engagements, now is the time to direct youth creativity into key sectors, such as agriculture, healthcare and tourism. Coupled with the right IP policies and frameworks in place, we can empower youth to create wealth for themselves, and take their inventions to the world.


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Key players from Africa's startup and investment ecosystem post on issues close to their heart for Disrupt Africa.

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