Sunday, December 16, 2012

Africa must take IP protection seriously for its entrepreneurs to succeed

Last September I attended the Startup World event in Kigali Rwanda. Startup World is a global competition for startups based on a concept similar to American Idol to find the next startup idol. The difference is that instead of having all the startups coming to one location to compete, the Startup World team is organizing events in 37 cities worldwide on all continents recognizing the fact that Silicon Valley is not an exclusive source of innovation.

This is a great idea and the dynamic Startup World team is doing miracles to make this a success. We were lucky here in Kigali to host one event and it generated a lot of interest in the community. As one of the founding members of kLab, the new innovation center in Kigali, I helped some of our members applying and preparing for that competition. It is actually one of them who won the contest.

The winner will ge invited to travel to Silicon Valley to pitch before venture capitalists. And this is where I start to get concerned. When talking with the Startup World organizers, I asked them if they provided any protection for the Intellectual Property (IP) of the participants? They did not and said that it should be the responsibility of each participant. The reality is that generally these young African entrepreneurs have very little understanding about IP protection. How many times did I meet these young entrepreneurs and they would share with me their idea or projects without any protection. I know some who did share their good project with local telecoms. They asked for a meeting and naively shared their project with the telco representatives without any non-disclosure agreement (NDA) being signed or without any recording that such a meeting even took place!

There seems to be more and more of these competitions for innovators in Africa and so far I have not seen any of them explicitly addressing the IP protection problem. Then they send the winners in front of VCs in California!?!? Guess what will happen...

But the ones to blame are not these competition organizers, neither the VCs that will benefit from their efforts. What is needed here is for Africa to start seriously addressing the IP problem at the continent level. If Africa wants its innovators to succeed, it needs to provide them with the adequate protection for their inventions. Without that IP protection Africa may see one more time its resources, in this case its intellectual resources, exploited by foreign organizations. 

This is probably what happened with M-Pesa. Safaricom is being sued by the creator of M-Pesa for theft of his idea/invention. No patent was ever filed in Kenya, and none would have been issued because Kenya does not allow business method patents or software patents. Actually  it is Vodafone Group Services Limited incorporated in England that owns M-Pesa and not Safaricom as is the popular belief in Kenya. Strangely there is very little credible information about that case on the Web.

At the minimum, my recommendation for young entrepreneurs sharing their innovation with third parties, is to get them to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) sometimes also called a Confidentiality Agreement. These can be found on Internet, here is an example. At the minimum, the agreement should include the definition of what information is shared, the explanation of the purpose of the disclosure and the identification of the people and company to which is it disclosed with time, date and location. This will at least send a clear signal to the third party that you are taking the protection of your IP seriously. If the third party refuses to sign such an agreement, it will also clearly indicate that they may not be seriously considering a partnership with you, in which case you should run away.

IP protection laws have been the foundation for the development of successful innovative corporations like Apple, IBM, etc. (see the recent Apple-Samsung patent dispute). 
The US has its own Patent Office, so does Europe and many countries in all continents...except for Africa. I could not find a patent office from any African country in this list of patent offices in the world, while I know there are some, at least here in Rwanda.

What is needed is to deploy one Patent Office for all of Africa. Patent Offices are expansive and most individual country in Africa cannot afford it. By coordinating efforts at the continent level Africa can reduce the cost and at the same time provide protection in all the countries in Africa at once.

Such a  Pan-African IP Organization has been in the works at the African Union but the project is already under criticism by experts and it may take long before it becomes operational. We need to find interim solutions. The World IP Organization (WIPO) has issued an interesting document about "Guidelines on Developing Intellectual Property Policy For Universities and R&D Institutions in African Countries". Next is the need for educating entrepreneurs about IP protection and providing them with the means of using it. Applying for a patent is a complex process. We at CMU-Rwanda are planning to have IP protection eduction for our graduate students with the help of WIPO.

Let's make sure that the next African innovation benefits its inventors and Africa.

Seeya later alligator...