Op-Ed: Protecting African Intellectual Property

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We need to quantify and protect Africa’s exported technology because a lot more is going on than many of us realise.

Image: The Blue Diamond Gallery.

By Nnamdi Oranye

The complexity of cross-border economics needs to be re-evaluated by those involved. The recent downgrade of aid to Africa from the Trump administration has proved that the relationship Africa has with the developed world is not as predictable as it used to be. The percentage of African emigrants has not plateaued and, with that, comes the tricky business of what belongs to Africa and what belongs to the world.

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Recently I was at a tech conference in the United States and one of the speakers presented the extraordinary success Zambia has had in their fight against malaria. What was of interest to me was that this was as a direct result of software developed in Zambia, and by extension, Africa.

Ambitious goal to eliminate malaria

Here’s the back-story. The health ministry of Zambia has an ambitious goal of eliminating malaria altogether. Their Visualize No Malaria project has already seen unprecedented success. These advancements indicate that their goal is not unrealistic. They were able to do this through the brilliance of Zambian-based software engineers, which found a way to load intricate geospatial data into an existing database (EXASOL). Having a significant proportion of Zambia’s landmass mapped out, analysts and government were able to send treatment to specific areas, rather than the previously unsuccessful spread-betting.

This collaboration between local and international innovators has made for a noteworthy observation. Watch this. If you do a Google search for the Visualize No Malaria campaign, the success of it is credited to the international collaborators, with little emphasis on Zambia. Just to clarify, I’m a big fan of their work and I do regularly engage with these international collaborators. In fact, in certain instances, I use their product!

So what’s that about, you wonder? So do I. This leads me to ask the question: why is the contribution Africa has on technology never quantified? Steps have been taken to quantify the economic contribution of African migrants but little is being done to quantify the software, intellectual property (IP), and intel being exported by those who have not left Africa, but whose technology is being used abroad.

Inspired by Zimbabwe’s car-sharing culture

Here’s another interesting example. Lyft, now a multi-billion ride-sharing company that operates in 300 cities in the U.S., was inspired by Zimbabwe’s car-sharing culture (which people in Zimbabwe call “lifts”). After Lyft founders Logan Green and John Zimmer returned from a Zimbabwe trip around 2007, they started “Zimride”, which focused on car sharing between U.S. cities. Many people thought it was called “Zimride” because of Zimmer’s surname, but it was actually inspired by a Zimbabwe trip.

How much of this story will be shared in the future? While you can find this info if you go looking for it, you will generally find it as a side-story in Wikipedia entries and the like. We, as Africans, need to be keeping this in the public record. Quantifying African exported innovation, its worth and impact, changes the amount of perceived influence Africa has in the global arena. As Trump has demonstrated, the United States is able to withhold funding and donor aid from Africa as it wishes.

The impact this has on science and technology development is huge. Withholding funding is another way of withholding power. What if it were the other way around? What would happen if Africa were to withhold its own innovation? What if Africa were to not release software and innovation that it developed? What if we patented our ideas? If we were able to quantify African IP, and the return of investment, it would disrupt many of the Fortune 500 companies that benefit from it.

Africa’s legacy of innovation

Africa has a legacy of innovation that many other continents capitalised on. Our issue, perhaps, is we’re not talking about it or documenting it or even thinking about how our ideas can be used profitably. Exploring ways to quantify this appears to be on the backburner of our own agenda. I believe that needs to change.

As I alluded to earlier, the significant impact of African IP is also usually up for grabs because it hasn’t been patented. Experts in patent law need to get involved and offer their skills. It can’t be that the economic and influential impact African IP has is of no benefit to the continent simply because it wasn’t patented. Such a problem is easily solved. Government, the African Union, the African Diaspora, and even philanthropic international investors need to protect African IP and use it as a resource to strengthen the economic growth of our continent.

So let us consider the impact of taking back African IP. Without a doubt, if Africa were not funded by international investment, it would not have many of the technological and commercial advancements that it does. However, receiving funding is no basis for not owning our own IP. Caution needs to be taken in partnerships between African innovators and their international investors.

Siyavula aims to disrupt traditional education

Google recently granted $1.5 million to the non-profit arm of Siyavula, an education company based in South Africa. Siyavula has developed a software service called Intelligent Practice, and a model that allows collaborative distribution of content. They aim to disrupt traditional education and this caught Google’s attention. Thankfully, Siyavula had the foresight to protect their technology. Any potential collaborators would need to license their IP as well. Siyavula’s partnership with Google shows us that retaining economic autonomy, and accessing international investment, is achievable.

We are in a situation where there is still inadequate exposure of African innovation and technology. M-Pesa’s expansion into Europe can’t be the only example we know about. As we start to quantify the impact of African IP, we must protect the value and influence it has in Africa and the world. It’s our responsibility, regardless of the contribution that has come from outside our borders.

 

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