Teaching basic intellectual property rights in varsities will raise awareness

A student demonstrates an innovation meant to curb drunk driving. PHOTO | TONNY OMONDI

Some African countries are viewed by the rest of the world as emerging economies and hence have attracted a lot of foreign investment. There are a lot of innovations coming up in every field in these countries. However the uptake of intellectual property (IP) is still very low.

For example in Kenya, despite there being a lot of scientific innovations, there are fewer registered patents compared to the developed world.

Other than in-grown African innovations, there are a lot of foreign businesses expanding into Africa which need to protect their products and innovations locally.

Africa is seen to be a growing market for foreign products. The need for IP in Africa is therefore two fold; to protect local and foreign innovations locally.

Despite this need, there is a very low level of IP protection. One of the reasons for this is lack of IP regulation.

Many African countries have not prioritised IP legislation despite being signatories of various treaties.

Most of them are embroiled in politics and quite honestly are too unstable to come up with meaningful development agenda. IP regulation has therefore taken a back seat and simply put there are no IP laws in some states.

However there are some countries like South Africa and Kenya which have tried to keep up with IP legislation. But still despite the existence of legislation, the uptake of IP is still very low.

The reason for this is that there is a lack of awareness and exposure among innovators on IP rights such that the end users are not even aware of their rights.

According to the Kenya’s Science, Technology and Innovation Act, the Innovation authority’s role is to promote awareness of IP rights.

To be fair the authority is a newly constituted body. I believe that lack of awareness can be addressed by teaching basic IP in universities that offer science and technology courses such that IP is not only for law students but for innovators as well.

There are very few IP professionals who would be able to serve innovators. There are a few lawyers who practice IP and also there are few patent agents in Africa.

Most lawyers in the continent are engaged in mainstream practice like litigation and therefore there is little specialised legal knowledge such as intellectual property.

In Kenya for example, some of the IP laws were only legislated in 2001, meaning before 2001, IP was not a subject popularly taught in Kenyan law schools.

In fact in most African countries, IP is deemed to be an emerging area of practice whereas in developed countries, it is so developed that there are specialised IP advocates bars.

Some people argue that African innovations are largely ‘useless” claiming they lack commercial value, being just mere re-invention of the wheel. It seems that this view is true. While many of the ideas are new, the technology behind the idea is seldom new.

Consider this example I came across once. Someone came up with a flying robot that could be used for security and surveillance. While the idea of using a robot for security may be new, the technology behind it may not be very new.

An innovation like that cannot compete effectively with innovations like drones which use more or less the same technology. The robot is a re-invention of the wheel and commercially not viable in the face of drones.

The regulator has also been accused of interpreting the law in such a rigid manner that very few innovations ever make it past the regulator’s kitchen.

One of the indicators of a growing economy is the number of registered patents. Therefore emerging African countries need to put more effort to compete with the developed world.

Ms Mputhia is the founder of C. Mputhia Advocates. cmputhia@cmputhiadvocates. www.cmputhiadvocates.com

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