Securing intellectual property rights is fundamental to Africa’s economic and societal growth

Analysis in brief: If African nations can ensure their entrepreneurs can legally protect the rights to their inventions, innovation will lead to business and economic growth, poverty reduction and the unleashing of Africa’s intellectual capacity.

Without IP protection, innovation is discouraged at the expense of national growth

No one wants their ideas stolen without credit or to never see their hard work pay off in terms of recognition and profit. The prospect of not being able to protect an entrepreneur’s intellectual property (IP) halts innovation. At a company level, businesses do not invest in research and development for fear their investment cannot be protected. Nationally, jobs that might exist through innovation remain uncreated, and economic growth that would result goes unfulfilled. Because of all this, there is little wonder that economists are urging national governments to do all they can to ensure IP protection. Such assurance for inventors would unlock Africa’s innovation potential.

All African nations have become signatories to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and, through this treaty, are obligated to protect their citizens’ copyrights, trademarks, industrial designs and patents. However, it is as if governments have no faith in the inventiveness of their citizens or see the value of imagination as the engine that propels economies. Even when patents are issued, the lack of enforcement mechanisms make these worthless. Only a few African nations like South Africa have specialised IP courts, while a majority of legal practitioners continentally have no experience in IP issues.

Governments should do all they can to boost innovation, which would ultimately bring increased tax revenues and national growth. However, most governments refuse to dedicate resources to expedite IP registration or even see a reason to do so. It is as if innovation is a concept that is anathema to conservative governments, who seek to stifle development wherever it appears.

Consequently, if a citizen has an invention to register, this takes an inordinately long time in Africa. A trademark that can be registered in a European country in a maximum of six months can take up to three years in a typical African country. Rather than recognise that innovators are the vehicles to bring prosperity in years ahead, right now, they are still struggling entrepreneurs, particularly when governments keep fees for IP registration unaffordable. Africa has some of the highest patent registration fees in the world. It is more expensive to register a patent in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, or Senegal than it is in Canada, Japan or the UK. Viewing these fees in terms of GDP per capita, the patent registration fee in Kenya is 13.3 times the country’s GDP per capita, while in Senegal it is 10.2 times and in Ethiopia it is 7.9 times higher. Comparably, IP registration fees in the US are 0.1 times their GDP per capita, while fees in Germany are 0.3 and in Malaysia are 0.4.

Patents undermined by counterfeiting

A patent is defined as an exclusive right held by the inventor of a product or process. If someone else wishes to duplicate the invention, the patent holder may sell rights to the invention for a royalty fee. While all patents are valid for a limited period of time, this time period should be long enough for the inventor to reap the financial rewards for their work. Such a time period is generally considered to be 20 years. However, here too African inventors are short changed. Countries like Angola and Ethiopia depart from the international norm by only issuing patents for 15 years, while Tanzania only recognises patents for 10 years. This is half the length of time established by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, to which these countries are signatories.

In terms of law enforcement, the greatest threat to African entrepreneurs’ IPs is counterfeiting. While the Lagos Port Complex, Nigeria, the Inland Container Depot Nairobi, Kenya, and the Port of Porto Novo, Benin, are the three main ports of entry for counterfeit goods into Africa, smuggling is everywhere as poor Africans are eager to purchase knock-off designer products. However, any popular consumer good is counterfeited, while essential goods like pharmaceuticals are perennial targets for counterfeiters because of the consistent demand. Fake pharmaceuticals are often sold as ‘safe generics’ or could be packed to look like genuine drug products. The WHO estimates that 70% of drugs in Nigeria are counterfeit. Africa imports 80% of its medical drugs from abroad and 99% of its vaccines. No wonder there is little local drug manufacturing, when massive counterfeiting undermines the financial incentive to innovate these essential products in African countries. Locally made products would lower the cost of drugs, which would undermine the demand for counterfeit drugs.

Drug manufacturing in South Africa. Developing local capacity for pharmaceutical development and innovation is key to
strengthening the ability to file patents that stem from within Africa.
Image courtesy: SmithKline

Taking IP seriously

Two inter-governmental organisations have been established to boost IP registration in their respective spheres of influence: The African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) has 21 member States, each of which issues its own patents. The Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI) has 17 Francophone member states, none of whom issue patents. These are issued by the OAPI itself and are valid in not just the patent holder’s country but all OAPI member states.

However, neither ARIPO nor OAPI has any policing capacity, and neither are able to look out for patent holders’ rights. Policing must be done by individual countries, and to do so, governments must be roused to devote resources to protecting IP. The economic benefits wrought by innovation have been proved but only if individual initiative is fairly rewarded.

Heads of IP offices in Africa attending a conference in Kigali during June 2023. ARIPO members and the organisation itself look
to regularly host workshops and seminars, and discuss IP-related matters in streamlining cooperation and
working relationships related to IP across jurisdictions.
Image courtesy: ARIPO

The critical points:

  • Africa is lagging economically and developmentally because innovation is not protected and thus often unrewarded
  • It takes longer to secure a patent in Africa and is much more expensive for an African to secure than in Asia or Europe
  • While inter-governmental organisations follow constructive ways to secure IP rights, individual countries must police counterfeiting and otherwise protect their nationals’ patent holders