Today, the world is driven by the knowledge economy and the value of intellectual property (IP) has never been higher. But, while others have fully exploited and commercialised their IP, Africa is still playing catch-up and a great deal of confusion over this complex area still gets in the way. In this interview, Fernando dos Santos (pictured below), the Director General of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), tells Baffour Ankomah why his organisation is so vital to the continent's prosperity.
Q: Why is intellectual property relevant to African countries and their citizens?
A: First of all, it is important to emphasise that intellectual property has always been here with us in Africa. It is not new to us. If we consider that mankind was born in Africa, it follows that this is the place where creativity, innovation, and knowledge were born. And it is this capacity of mankind to be creative and innovative that forms the basis of intellectual property (IP).
But when IP was systematised much later, it did not take into account the specificities of African knowledge and its mechanisms of protection. So we are now trying to catch up. In fact, we are really behind.
Today, IP has become so important because we are in a knowledge economy and the whole world revolves around knowledge, so we have to harness the African knowledge to develop our continent. To that end, there is a need for a balanced IP system.
It has been echoed several times that the African continent is rich in natural resources, in culture, folklore, and traditional knowledge. But if we are that rich, why are we not developing? The simple answer is because we are not adding value to the wealth that is on the continent by using IP tools. So IP cannot be divorced from the future development of this continent.
We know this is what is happening in Asia. They have put in place the necessary structures to harness their potential and we are beginning to see the astronomical growth emerging from the continent. So we have to see ourselves running the same race in which, in order to compete, we are required to use wisely the same tools but in a creative manner that gives us competitive and comparative advantages over those who have gone ahead and used IP tools to stay ahead.
Can you break the IP tools down for the man in the street to understand?
Maybe. Let's start from the beauty of our African beaches. A beach needs infrastructure, marketing, and branding. For a beach to have value and attract tourists, it needs to be branded.
With regards to mineral resources, value addition is critical, to leverage on their potential. We cannot recognise diamonds in their raw form because they are just stones. Those stones need to be polished and branded before they are appreciated by the consumer for their quality and utility. So patenting, branding, and marketing are very important for leveraging our mineral resources.
We also have unique products in agriculture such as food crops, cash crops and horticulture. Value can be added by using an IP tool called geographical indications, which help you to capitalise on the origin of a product and link that origin to a specific quality that can only be found when the product comes from a specific place. For example, champagne from a region of France. The same applies...