‘Intellectual property key to economic development’

Zimbabwe will this week (November 6 to 8) host the Conference on Intellectual Property (IP), Innovation and Value Addition for Business Competitiveness and Sustainable Development in Africa. The conference, which will be held in Harare, is being organised by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), Organisation africaine de la propriété intellectuelle (OAPI), Japan Patent Office (JPO) and the Government of Zimbabwe. The Herald engaged WIPO director-general Mr Francis Gurry in a conversation ahead of the conference.

Q: What is intellectual property and how is it relevant to Africa?
Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce. IP rights — for example, patents, copyright and trademarks — enable people to earn recognition or financial benefit from what they invent or create. By striking the right balance between the interests of innovators and the wider public interest, the IP system aims to foster an environment in which creativity and innovation can flourish.

For African countries, developing a vibrant innovation economy is increasingly important.

Developing countries around the world are seeking high-quality innovation — new ideas, products and services — to boost growth, while diversifying their economies.

WIPO — a specialised agency of the United Nations based in Geneva, Switzerland — works to provide a balanced and effective international IP system that enables innovation and creativity for the benefit of all. WIPO, with 192 member states, provides a global forum where governments and other stakeholders negotiate IP standards and rules. The WIPO Secretariat administers more than two dozen treaties, promotes partnerships for development and provide technical advice to countries seeking to benefit from the global IP system.

Q: How is Africa currently performing in IP filings and innovation reports like the Global Innovation Index?
WIPO’s annual report on the innovation performance of economies across the globe, the Global Innovation Index (GII), shows that Africa shines in terms of innovation relative to level of development. Since 2012, Sub-Saharan Africa has had more economies outperforming on innovation relative to level of development than any other region. This is a very important trend for Africa.

While there has been important growth in the past 15 years in Africa’s filings for patents (+77 percent) and trademarks (+74 percent), Africa’s overall shares of IP filings are still comparatively low. For patents, this is largely a question of technological capacity. Patents are really the product of an entire innovation ecosystem, which requires investments and policy planning. Countries need to invest in a whole range of areas — from educational capacity, to research and development capabilities, to rising business sophistication, to an investment-friendly environment for capital and so on. Acquiring innovation capacity is a long-term process. No country can do it overnight, but we are seeing exciting and interesting developments in Africa, including increased investment in research and development and knowledge infrastructure. This is very promising.

Q: How can intellectual property help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Africa?
In a highly competitive globalised business environment, the IP system can be used by SMEs to protect their creations and innovations from imitators, differentiate their products from those of competitors and ensure that their products are visible and attractive in the global marketplace. IP protection is not just for large multinational companies — even small and medium-sized companies can use branding and trademarks, as just one example, to protect and promote their products at home and abroad.

IP rights can also facilitate collaborations, attract partnerships and create additional revenue streams through licensing opportunities. IP rights can also be used to attract financing, particularly for innovative start-ups.

Q: What can African policymakers do to promote the widespread use of IP in their countries, and particularly among small and medium-sized enterprises?
Policy makers around the world are increasingly recognising the value of IP in promoting economic, social and cultural development. This is particularly true in economies that are heavily reliant on the SME sector, as is the case in many African countries.

I am encouraged by efforts in many African countries to generate wider awareness of the benefits of the IP system, while ensuring that SMEs have access to IP expertise that could help them exploit those benefits.

One area for policy makers to consider is taking steps to develop IP advisory support mechanisms in the country to support SMEs. Such IP expertise could range from basic IP advice to more-advanced IP management and strategic support, including for the drafting and filing of patent applications, using IP databases, as well as licensing, enforcement and valuation.

This, of course, comes in the context of overall support for the use of IP, for the benefit of all economic actors. In this regard, the recent accession of Zimbabwe to WIPO’s Beijing and Marrakesh Treaties shows the importance that the Zimbabwe Government is giving to intellectual property. This bolsters the intellectual property landscape in Zimbabwe, which should contribute to the economic development of your country.

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