Spurring Local Innovation In Africa By Improving Access To InformationPublished on 19 October 2009 @ 2:40 pm
Greater awareness of the existence of open access information resources for innovation and making the information easily accessible and relevant to developing country users could help spur innovation in these countries, according to top technical assistance providers and local innovators.
In a two-part series, Intellectual Property Watch spoke with local innovators and researchers in Kenya to identify successes and challenges facing local innovators in Africa. Part I looks at access to and use of innovation information resources.
Several local innovators interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch said they were unaware of the information resources available to them.
Researchers and innovators in developed countries seeking authoritative information on how to solve a particular technical problem or develop a new product generally turn either to scientific journals or patent information.
However, patent information enjoys certain advantages over scientific journals, according to William Meredith, head of the World Intellectual Property Organization Patent Information and IP Statistics Section which includes Patentscope, WIPO’s free patent database service. There are several other databases that for a fee provide patent information relevant to specific industry sectors.
Foremost among advantages is that “new innovations released to the public are published for the first time in patent application documents – so if you are looking for the very latest in the state of the art, that is a good place to start,” Meredith said.
Richard Jefferson, director of the Initiative for Open Innovation (IOI), executive director of Cambia and professor of science, technology and law at Queensland University of Technology (Australia), said the patent documents have a legal obligation “to teach the reader how to make the stated invention.”
Despite the stated benefits, Gakuru Muchemi, a senior lecturer at the Department of Electrical and Information Engineering of the University of Nairobi School of Engineering, noted in an interview that “the use of patent disclosure information either as a research tool or teaching aid in our institutions of learning and research still remains unused or underutilised.”
Muchemi, who has developed a Swahili text-to-speech system, attributed this to general unawareness that certain patent databases can be accessed online free of charge. “Where there is awareness of the potential of patent information, there is a general misconception that they are all provided on a commercial basis which discourages researchers and students from seeking them out,” he added.
Meredith said that in developed countries where new technical information is indispensable to innovation processes, innovators and researchers especially in universities not only use the freely accessible information, they also subscribe to various commercial databases and scientific journals. In developing countries, where resources are scarce, failure to use these freely available databases represents the loss of a huge learning opportunity, he said.
How Relevant is Patent Information?
Jefferson said the information in patent documents is relevant even to African countries with low innovative capacities. “Everything from mechanical water pumps to bicycle wheels, from farm implements to grain storage, from food processing to packaging. Virtually all of the cornucopia of the last fifty years of technological development is spelled out in explicit teachings in the global patent literature – and almost all of it ripe for the picking by Africa.”
Meredith, on the other hand, added that, “even where the innovators in developing countries may not be able to reproduce the latest cutting edge technology contained in patent documents, they may be still be able to use information contained in the specifications about the technology to adapt to local situations.”
In an interview, Jefferson said if the information is packaged correctly, “this could be the very backbone for a technological revolution within the countries, at the pace and with the priorities of African innovators.” IOI, which was launched in July (IPW, Education/R&D/Innovation, 15 July 2009), hopes to do exactly this. They not only provide patent information through Cambia’s Patent Lens database – a free patent information database – but also provide “innovation intelligence” that places the patents in the necessary context to create social or economic value, he said.
“Users will therefore not be stranded with a monolithic and moribund ‘white paper’” regarding a technology, but rather with a dynamic and growing knowledge resource. This includes information on related technical and grey literature necessary for working the innovation, the regulatory and policy framework surrounding particular technologies, and even help identify other parties interested in a technology with whom linkages can be made.
Local Innovators’ Experience
Information packaged in this manner could be invaluable to young entrepreneurs like Simon Mbugua Mwaura from Kenya who was interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch. Mwaura is not formally employed and does part-time freelance electrical wiring for homes on the outskirts of Nairobi. He was recently profiled in the local Kenyan media and blog sites, for his innovation. The device is a simple home security system with a central-alarm and lock mechanism, which also creates a log to record and send messages to the owner in real time of all events occurring within the system. This was designed from various recycled electronic components and programmed to be operated by a basic mobile phone. He also improvised a tea-brewer that could be remotely operated by the same phone.
Pascal Katana and Jeremiah Murimi, students at the University of Nairobi School of Engineering, also were in the local and international media, for designing a device they called a ‘smart charger’ that enables one to charge a mobile phone using energy generated from riding a bicycle – a device that is very handy in rural areas without electricity.
All of the young innovators interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch were not aware of the existence of open access patent databases that could be used to draw information to either develop new products or improve on their innovations.
Both the IOI and WIPO indicated very modest use of their patent information from Africa by reviewing African internet protocol addresses accessing the databases.
Muchemi, the professor from University of Nairobi, said awareness may increase usage. IOI has carried out a number of outreach programmes in Africa and also hopes to forge partnerships with African research think tanks drawn from various African countries under the auspices of the Acacia Network sponsored by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
According to Meredith, the WIPO Patentscope team’s publicity efforts are largely centred on “increasing its internet presence” and more participation in workshops, conferences and exhibitions. They have an initiative specifically targeting universities, he said.
However, for users in developing countries with low internet penetration, these rich information sources may remain inaccessible. Meredith told Intellectual Property Watch that while WIPO used to produce CD-ROMs for users with poor or no internet access, the initiative ceased when demand for the CDs dropped and currently there is “no clear policy on this mode of access.”
Similarly, IOI is not prioritising a non-internet mode of access as it “as it renders most of the information difficult to search, to analyse, to understand in context or to act upon,” said Jefferson.
Africa more than any other world region stands to benefit from the information contained in patent documents, according to Jefferson. While asserting the need to map the extent of patent protection in Africa, Jefferson said that most patent information may not be protected on the continent and therefore can be freely used without fear of infringement. This leaves “millions of patents that are no less than explicit recipes; guides to creating things, building things, making things and providing services.” He further added that “communities in Africa can coalesce and take inspiration and substance from the patents and forge these into products and services that benefit their countries and continent, and which can build businesses and employment.”
Meanwhile, the use of patent information by developing countries was discussed at a 13-14 October WIPO conference on the Development Agenda (IPW, Access to Knowledge, 15 October 2009; IPW, Access to Knowledge, 13 October 2009). Participants highlighted the difficulty in searching and sorting information in various patent databases and said that provision of patent information should not be taken as a substitute for transfer of technology.
Robinson Esalimba is currently a researcher at Intellectual Property Watch focusing on technology transfer issues. He holds a law degree from the University of Nairobi and a masters degree in law with specialisation in intellectual property law from Lund University in Sweden.
Robinson Esalimba may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
William New may be reached at email@example.com.