Special Report: IP Protection Secondary To Support For Small African InnovatorsPublished on 19 November 2009 @ 12:58 pm
By Robinson Esalimba for Intellectual Property Watch
Systematic and sustained programmes aimed at identifying and supporting African innovative talent may be a key part of Africa’s technological evolution, according to researchers and young entrepreneurs interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch. The second of a two-part series highlighting innovation challenges in Africa focuses on harnessing and nurturing African innovation talent.
In Kenya, one need not have a credit history, credit card or bank account to be a part of the paperless economy; all that is required is a mobile phone. With a mobile phone, one can pay for groceries at a tiny village shop, a ride in a taxi or transfer money to a relative in another town. The mobile phone, and especially the short messaging service (SMS), is a technology that young Kenyan entrepreneurs have adapted and repurposed in ways that are dramatically altering the lives of many people. However, the first challenge for African countries is identifying and harnessing this innovative talent.
Technology professor Nathan Eagle, who is an Omidyar Fellow at the Sante Fe Institute in the United States and a visiting lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said, “My best students at the University of Nairobi are on par with my best students at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology].”
“My priority now is to raise seed money to build my gadgets, protection may come later. Intellectual property seems to play a role only if you are a big businessman.” – Kenyan innovator
Nii Simmonds, from Ghana, an entrepreneur and one of the founders and organisers of Maker Faire Africa, an annual innovation fair that showcases African talent in various technology fields agreed, and added that “though the abundance of talent is generally undoubted, there is need to identify the specific individuals or groups driving innovation at the grassroots.” According to him, it is these individuals and not big multinationals that demystify the idea of technology and help to make it accessible to local people.
Simon Mwaura, a young innovator who developed a mobile phone-operated home security system (IPW, Education/R&D/Innovation, 19 October 2009) told Intellectual Property Watch, “my first mobile phone innovation, stirred a lot of interest amongst my neighbours and villagers, and many people urged me to take it forward – but no one quite knew where forward was.”
Jeremiah Murimi, who with a colleague invented a mobile phone charger that uses energy generated from riding a bicycle (IPW, Education/R&D/Innovation, 19 October 2009), added that “many times we hold in our hands what may be a useful invention, but which the public will never enjoy because we do not know how to get it to them.”
Simmonds of Maker Faire Africa said there is strong need to have a port of call to which innovators can reach out and obtain legal and financial advice. Organising innovation fairs, such as Maker Faire Africa, helps to meet part of this need, but because of its scale and seasonality, it is only able to identify and help a small part of the talent in the pool, he said. “In developed countries, the idea of innovation incubators is well established, whether publicly funded through universities or private investors,” he said. “It is very easy therefore to figure out your next stop after you have developed your idea.” However, even when talent is identified, scaling up of technologies still remains a significant challenge.
Scaling up Ideas
Pascal Katana, a Kenyan entrepreneur who has been featured in the media, here and here, for his inventions, told Intellectual Property Watch: “We have many ideas, we have developed prototypes, we know they are working and people are asking for them, but we have few funding options to meet this demand.”Katana added that though there is initial excitement when their ideas hit the media, none of his many innovations has gotten to the market. For instance, Katana has developed a “fish caller gadget” that can be used by fishermen to attract fish. The gadget mimics the sound of fish eating and attracts the fish around the device. The motion of the fish around the gadget triggers a mechanism that sends an SMS to the fisherman alerting him that his catch is ready. Katana said that getting the necessary funding to mass produce the fish caller has been a challenge despite the fact that several fishermen have asked him for it.
For Simmonds, funding for African innovation is uniquely difficult. “There is the concept of the ‘missing middle’, the lack of investments larger than micro-finance loans but smaller than large-scale bank credit,” he said. He added that “this leaves a huge funding gap for innovators in Africa looking to scale up their innovations.”
This is different from other regions, especially in the developed world, where there are many middle range investors supporting incubators, or actively looking to fund “the next big idea.” According to Eagle, there may be a role, therefore, for public institutions to meet this market gap, though he expressed scepticism about the long-term sustainability of subsidising local businesses with public funds. He said support to local entrepreneurs is crucial because “they are going to add more value and insight than large multinationals simply because of their more nuanced view of the local market.”
Perceptions on the role of international organisations
Those interviewed by Intellectual Property Watch said they had difficulty in seeing a role to be played in supporting local innovation by multilateral organisations such as the UN World Intellectual Property Organization or the World Trade Organization, which administers the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
Eagle from the Sante Fe Institute said “I have to admit that I’m fairly cynical about the value these international organisations can add to nurturing entrepreneurship in Africa.” He added, “While I’d love to be proven wrong, to date it doesn’t seem that these organisations have enough clout to instigate legitimate change on a national level.”
Simmonds said that in various forums where technology innovators meet to share experiences, organisations such as WIPO and WTO have not featured because “our efforts have been focused on turning technological ideas into products and services.” He added, “multilateral organisations have not shown how they can feed into this into this immediate need.”
Katana, the Kenyan innovator, said he has not even been able to protect his innovations due to the high cost of utility model registration. Utility model is a form of protection similar to patents, and is often given to innovations of an incremental character which may not meet the high patentability criteria.
“My priority now is to raise seed money to build my gadgets, protection may come later,” he said. “Intellectual property seems to play a role only if you are a big businessman.”
Eagle stated there is now a huge opportunity to legitimately compete with foreign companies who often subscribe to overly simplistic and homogeneous views of the “African market.” The African venture capital market is just starting to gain some traction, as investors are beginning to perceive legitimate commercial opportunities in these regions that he said to date have been overlooked by traditional venture capitalists.
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.
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