Innovation, Intellectual Property and Law

"Ideas are worth a dime dozen, but people who put them into action are priceless.” -- African Proverb

I have had the opportunity to participate in many forums that have painted a clear picture of the issues that we must tackle within the Kenyan context and extrapolated to Africa at large if we are to grow into a dominant position in the technology space.

It may currently enjoy buzzword status and take on many forms, but innovation is the foundation of our claiming a stake and anything that presents a bottleneck should and must be quickly addressed.

Innovation and the law

Drawing from my interactions at Connected Kenya – an annual summit that brings together government and private sector players to look at the challenges and opportunities of the citizen served - I had the opportunity to participate in a fireside chat with a healthy number of members of parliament present.

A thought emerged on my first stumbling block to innovation; that of legal bottlenecks.Innovation lies in the rethinking of, or recreation of already existing elements to birth a product or service that addresses a pain point, whether apparent or revealed. Many times this will mean brining down walled gardens, challenging status quo and disruption of the normal.

Our presently flogged poster child – M-Pesa - happened to slip past the guard dogs of the traditional banking sector and scaled quickly to almost become untouchable as the ecosystem players, caught flat footed have been forced to play ball.

Not every good idea will slip through the gate unnoticed and uninhibited. In this particular fireside chat was the issue of county insecurity, exacerbated by the lack of descent communication infrastructure and services.

As deduced from feedback given by currently licensed players; the populations in the affected areas do not offer a juicy revenue proposition. In a perfect storm, the regulator would come down hard and fast on a provider that innovated to provide a solution; despite the fact that the asking amounts for say, a license are the very reason why the areas lack coverage.

The areas leadership, as represented by the Members of Parliament has a mandate to fulfill to their people and have access to budgets that can be applied toward finding and deploying a solution with access to the August House (Kenya’s Parliament) where they can marshal peer support to adapt legislation.

ARIPO

Considering the political advantage is not available to all, which path would one follow? Would you succumb to the system and let a population suffer?

Or innovate and fight out the legalities?

I think companies should be in a position to invoke some amendment or other that protects an idea from premature death caused by an archaic or otherwise restrictive laws, where the benefits to the consumer or citizen - if thinking of government services would hold ground.

Intellectual Property and Creation of Exportable Value

At yet another forum held at the African Union in Addis Ababa, I took time to digest the Mo Ibrahim Governance Index and a host of other datasets that look at Africa’s current position and I feel validated in many ways on my call for the support and reinforcement of intellectual property institutions across Africa.

As Kenya and many other African nations’ gun for knowledge based economies, the inherent economic value can only be fully and truly realized once we protect the intellectual property in what is a global sharing economy.

While we have runaway success by way of multinational brands, Africa doesn’t have – in my opinion, what we can boast of as truly global brands. With a burgeoning and very creative youthful population, the key to growing entrepreneurs who will deploy the next innovative technologies and create jobs at an international scale is to give our institutions both a bark and a bite. The global village equals global competition, which means it is not only the guy next door who could monetize entire concepts or “borrow” certain elements but a whole army of international idea trolls, scouting for the next big orphaned idea.

There are currently 16 African states that are members of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization, born out of the Lusaka Agreement and open to state members of the African Union. The rights covered are patents, industrial designs, utility models, copyright, traditional knowledge and trademarks. ARIPO is complementary to member states national industrial property systems and could therefore be said to be as strong as its weakest links; which to me are differentiated fee structures and non-standard compliance and enforcement.

We should actively apply ourselves towards ensuring ARIPO meets its main objectives of harmonizing IP laws among member states, centrally handling grant and registration of IP rights and most importantly effective compliance and representation. A lot more awareness must be created on what is already in place and where we could improve especially so on the information and data exchange platform to seal loopholes and ensure homogeneity with similar systems successfully applied in other regions of the world.

As we match education with labour markets and drive innovation in sectors that will propel growth in Africa, we must be of one mind and process when it comes to our creative capital and its protection even as we start thinking of legal bunkers that would allow for the proof of concept to be realized and assumptions tested; thereafter providing justification of whether to kill or let live innovative services or product lines.

Cover Image Credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

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