(by Catherine Saez, first published in IP Watch (Geneva))
On the last day of the World Trade Organization Public Forum, a panel discussed the relationship between intellectual property and innovation in Africa, in particular in the informal sector. The formal IP system does not seems to fit, and least-developed countries need a sound technological base to be able to use the IP system. Separately, a European Patent Office study shows that Africa has a vast yet untapped potential in renewable energy. The annual WTO Public Forum took place from 1-3 October with the theme “Why trade matters to everyone.” The panel was organised by the African Innovation Research and Training project (Open AIR), the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), and the European Patent Office (EPO).
‘We Just Create Differently’
According to Tobias Schönwetter, director of the Intellectual Property Unit, Faculty of Law at University of Cape Town (South Africa), and co-principal investigator at Open AIR project, more and more people realise that IP rights by definition are monopolies, and inherently anti-competitive. There is increasing scepticism to the “one size-fits-all approach,” which was promoted by IP regimes, and through international treaties, he said. It is important to take into account the differences of the African context as compared to other regions, he said. In particular, he said the Open Air project took into account the extreme diversity of the African continent. Africa has unique innovation and entrepreneurial dynamics. “We just create differently, we just innovate differently,” he said, and that might not be well covered by the current IP instruments. The project, which covered 19 case studies, created a wide network of IP innovation and entrepreneurial specialists in Africa, he said. A further foresight scenario exercise was undertaken, taking the results of the research and translating that into what it means for Africa in the next 30 years, to be presented to policymakers, he explained. The overarching conclusions of the project, he said, is that the African context seems to be predisposed to innovation of necessity or accidental innovation, not so much focused on frontier or high technology innovation. Orthodox categories of IP often remain ill-equipped to deal with innovation originating from Africa. “They just don’t fit,” he said, and the infrastructure for research and IP management is often poor. A recommendation to policymakers would be to “avoid policy mistakes” and consider that while there is really no IP policy in Africa yet, although it is starting, sometimes no IP policy is better than having the wrong IP policy to foster innovation, he said. Another recommendation would be that sui generis forms of IP protection, such as trade secrets may be better suited for facilitating innovation in Africa than other forms of intellectual property such as patents or copyright, he concluded. Dick Kawooya, Uganda team member and principal investigator for the Open AIR project, concurred to say that western IP tools were for the most part irrelevant for innovation in the African context.Three scenarios came out of the foresight exercise, he said, one of which focused on the informal sector and for which a broader concept of knowledge governance was used, including IP tools, but going beyond those. Based on the case studies, he said, improvisation is very important for the informal sector, he said. “Someone operating in the informal sector has to constantly innovate,” he said. Improvisation is very important to the informal sector, so is apprenticeship. A lot of what happens in the informal sector is open, he said “so what puts you on the edge … is really producing more complex products or processes.” These knowledge appropriation mechanisms are important in Africa, he said. Continue reading