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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Time For Africa To Focus On Invisible Wealth by James Shikwati


Albert Einstein once stated: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Intellectual Property Rights are often considered as serious obstacles to trade and the transfer of technologies related to the conservation of biological diversity. African countries are rich in biodiversity and indigenous knowledge which has flowed freely to the developed countries. However global market trends are such that Africa must urgently address issues pertaining property rights if they have to fit into the global economy and also stimulate inventions and innovations. The challenge facing Africa is how to produce high quality goods and services while at the same time tackling aspects of poverty and unemployment. Africa is seen to participate in IPR as late comers already faced with other priority issues and lacking capacity to enforce IPR regimes.

In the book "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa", Walter Rodney argues that the Western World engaged in atrocities and looting of the African continent making people desperately poor. 50 years after most African countries gained independence from Europe, the Africans are still queuing for donor funding investing less in homegrown solutions and African talent. The biggest question is why this is happening in Africa, where people are endowed with the human mind that is creative and innovative?

The developed/Western countries did not get wealthy by merely exploiting the Third World. Dennis T. Avery in his paper "Sustaining Both Planet and People" argues that what the West did to get rich was to invent the systematic search for knowledge and then share it broadly. The West have always sought systematic knowledge that can be replicated and refer to that knowledge as "science". It is for this reason that they have moved from focusing on natural resources such as "land" to resources such as transistors, radios, fiber optic cables from sand. Most third world countries on the other hand have focused only on the "visible wealth" and 'tribal organization'. This structure instead of fostering wealth, promotes war over resources.

The list of inventions and innovations rarely indicates participation from Africa, falsely creating an impression that Africans are not creative and innovative. On the contrary however, long before the colonialist came to Africa, the African people had started ventures in medicine, iron smelting, arts, music, house building, and bead making and curving. The power of innovation was also exhibited in the way they preserved fire for later use, stored foodstuffs and the very fact that they could light a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

However the lack of systematic recording and beyond a collective level of property right recognition, robbed many innovators in Africa the ability to have their ideas improved upon and made economically viable. More so, the lack of a property rights regime that could measure to the countries that later colonized Africa made it easier for both physical and intellectual property to be seized by the occupying powers. Keeping knowledge secret as did metallurgists and medicine men in Africa without proper records robbed this continent of knowledge that would presently solve some of the ailments afflicting the continent.

Intellectual Property rights is the term that describes ideas, inventions, technologies, artworks, music and literature that are intangible when first created, but become valuable in tangible forms as products. IP is the commercial application of imaginative thought to solving a technical or artistic challenge. It is not a product itself, but the special idea behind it, the way the idea is expressed, and the distinctive way it is named and described. Africa is plagued by many problems ranging from social to economic that urgently indicate the presence of a unique market opportunity to innovators. Innovations may not necessarily be triggered by Intellectual Property Rights regime but also by the demand for solutions. It is therefore strategic for Africans to develop a quest within themselves to solve their own problems as a step to reaping benefits from IPR.

Some of the areas IPR can be used include the health sector, agricultural sector and the arts. For instance, Malaria was identified as the primary cause of poverty that slows down economic growth in Africa by 1.3%. The former Kenya's Health Minister Professor Sam Ongeri estimated that 17 million days at work place are lost every year due to malaria. It estimated that Kenya spends $10.4 Million every year to control malaria.

Intellectual Property ownership becomes a strategic tool for Africans to tackle diseases of poverty given the fact that wealthy nations may spend less time on diseases that don't affect them. To stem the tide of HIV-AIDS and Malaria in Africa, proper incentives for innovators must be put in place in order to save more Africans from dying. Intellectual property rights protection does not stop philanthropists and other people who might want to assist the poor from doing so. It simply meant to provide an avenue that will promote creativity and rewards to innovators.

Intellectuals from Africa migrate to wealthy countries in search for more rewarding challenges, better pay and recognition. This has been possible due to lack of an effective intellectual property regime that will make them stay home and help their countries create wealth. More often than not, they are harassed and treated with suspicion for merely being intellectuals. To stem brain drain, it's instructive that Africa builds institutions that will protect intellectual property. Building such institutions will ensure that the African innovators build upon the already existing knowledge to solve Africa's problems. Africa has become a mining ground for intellectual property with many researchers focusing on the biosphere and culture, without promoting systems that protect property, chances of abuse can be high.

In the field of agriculture, intellectual property regime will spur activity among the scientists and farmers to facilitate new knowledge that will lead to innovations. Such innovations will save Africa from relying on "climate fed" agriculture to intelligently driven agricultural practices. Releasing agro based population will enhance other areas of the economy such as the tourism industry, the retail industry and other technologically oriented industries. This can also make Africa to effectively join the biotech industry and save her populations from malnutrition and hunger.

Developed countries have been known to use protection of property rights as a barrier to trade especially in the field of medicine and arts. Third world countries ought to enforce intellectual property protection for its own good while at the same time allowing more innovators to compete in their own countries in order facilitate affordable prices.

What belongs to everyone, belongs to no one, and hence falls into disrepair. Africa must urgently seize this opportunity of protecting intellectual property not only in order to protect her own and make her people more innovative and provide solutions to African problems, but also to attract more investment and exchange of goods from other countries.

Intellectual Property Rights is a useful tool in maintaining the innovation process much needed to make Africa industrious. It's only through Intellectual Property that Africa will move from focusing only on the "visible wealth" to the invisible. This will not only improve the economies, give more avenues for investment but also reduce conflicts in the continent.



James Shikwati is a Kenyan economist and the Director of the Inter Region Economic Network and Africa Resource Bank Coordinator. He can be contacted via e-mail at: james@irenkenya.org or iren@kenyaweb.com



Note: This article first appeared in Truth About Trade and Technology


Tuesday, March 2, 2004

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