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Flexible intellectual property rights lead to greater innovation in Africa

April 27, 2016

The Open African Innovation Research and Training (Open A.I.R.) research project investigated the unique collaborative dynamics of innovation and intellectual property in nine African countries: Botswana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda. 

Open AIR is a uniquemultidisciplinary research network with research teams in 14 African countries, and research hubs in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Canada. The network is unique in offering a distinctly African perspective on the global intellectual property and innovation agenda.

Researchers explored various forms of intellectual property protection such as copyrights, patents, trademarks, trade secrets, informal protections, and customary modes of knowledge management. Sectors studied included music, leather goods, textile design, cocoa, coffee, auto parts, traditional medicine, book publishing, biofuels, and university research. The research concluded that for innovation to happen in Africa, a suitable balance between protecting creative ideas and opening up knowledge and information is more appropriate than tight knowledge protection. Case studies illustrate this balance:

  • In Kampala, Uganda, workers in informal metal fabrication shops with no formal education or training, share innovations with Makerere University, even making parts for Makerere’s Kiira EV electric car prototype.  
  • In Abeokuta, Nigeria, artisans who tie-dye adire textiles using local ingredients are becoming aware of the type of intellectual property known as a “geographical indication," through which they could differentiate their authentic products from low-cost, machine-dyed versions produced elsewhere.
  • In South Africa, the Kukula healers who rely on traditional knowledge (TK) about the healing properties of local plants, are pooling their knowledge in a “TK commons” that helps them protect the knowledge but also at the same allows them to share it when there is appropriate compensation.

Two books, Innovation & Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa and Knowledge & Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future,summarize the main findings of the project. 

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Photo (right): Britta Rutert
Meeting of Kukula healers, Bushbuckridge, South Africa.​