Africa’s inventors shackled by bad IP regimes

Africa innovation prize winner
Copyright: African Innovation Foundation

Speed read

  • Entrepreneurs face high costs and legislative mismatches in invention patenting
  • A lack of pan-African IP system means they cannot fight cheap imitations
  • African Union should help harmonise patent laws and align them to development

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Patenting law in Africa needs to become more effective to better support local entrepreneurs and boost growth, the continent’s innovators have said.

Attendants at the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) event, which honours inventors from African countries, told SciDev.Net that they struggle to turn their ideas into business because of weak patenting legislation.

Early-career entrepreneurs trying to patent their products in Africa face high legal costs, arbitrary bureaucratic processes and legislative mismatches between countries, they said.

The IPA was awarded during a two-day event in Skhirat, Morocco, on 12 and 13 May. Among the ten finalists this year, three had weak or no intellectual property protection, says Pauline Mujawamariya, the director of the African Innovation Foundation, which looks after the prize.

“I see master students who confuse their copyright for research papers with a patent for innovations.”

University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah in Fes, Morocco

One example for the precariousness of African intellectual property protection is the case of the 2014 IPA winner, Togo’s Logou Minsob. He received the award for his Foufoumix machine, which pounds yam roots into powder in under eight minutes — a process that takes hours if done by hand with a mortar and pestle.

Today, a year after Minsob bagged the US$25,000 prize, cheap imitations of the machine have popped up in Benin and Ghana. Minsob has filed a patent for his product at the African Intellectual Property Organization (AIPO) in Cameroon.

But while this offers protection in 19 West African countries, it excludes Ghana and Nigeria. “That’s dangerous,” says Minsob.

At the time of filing, Minsob did not know that with just one application in one language and one fee he could, within one year, file a single international patent under the World Intellectual Property Organisation’s (WIPO) Patent Cooperation Treaty, which covers nearly 150 countries.

Now he has to file in Ghana and Nigeria separately, and pay the additional costs.

Such issues around patent filing discourage African entrepreneurs, innovators at the conference said. According to the WIPO, around 2.5 million patents were filed globally in 2013, but Africa’s share was just 0.6 per cent — about 14,900 applications.

In comparison, Asian countries filed 58.4 per cent of all patents, which translates into 1.5 million applications, followed by North America with 23.6 per cent of patents, or 606,000 applications.

Inventors across Africa complain that the patent process is slow, costly and complicated. One stumbling block is that intellectual property rights are often territorial, and laws differ even within the same country. In Tanzania, the island region Zanzibar has different IP laws than the mainland, says MacLean Sibanda, a South African patent lawyer.

As a result of such complications, many African innovators look beyond the continent for patent protection. Moroccan programmer Mohammed Said Abdelouahad, 23, has designed a rhythm-based app for online authentication that collects all your passwords and activates them by tapping on the screen. A personal tap is harder to crack than characters, he says.

It took Abdelouahad six months of internet research to figure out how to file a patent in the United States, his market of choice. Eventually, he found a California-based Moroccan lawyer who filed the patent for him for a US$2,500 fee, low for a lawyer but expensive for a young African entrepreneur.

“We are programmers, we don’t know how to draft an application, and information is not easily accessible,” says Abdelouahad.

This year’s award was won by Adnane Remmal, a biotechnology professor at the University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah in Fes, Morocco. He received the prize for a natural alternative to antibiotics for livestock, which is based on essential oils.

Remmal says that most universities in Africa cannot afford to help researchers with their patenting, and that public-private partnerships could be the answer. He is also concerned about a lack of knowledge among potential entrepreneurs, who do not have essential information about patenting.

“I see master students who confuse their copyright for research papers with a patent for innovations,” he says. “Students must learn about these issues.”

Sibanda also sees a role for the African Union in strengthening local patent laws. “They could do more by developing a strategy with science and innovation ministers to align the African IP system with development,” he says.