Work is underway to boost development in Africa with the help of IP, but governments need to do more, as WIPR finds out in an interview with the director general of ARIPO.

The foundations of Africa are built on a diverse and often turbulent history, from European colonisation to economic struggles.

Africa may not necessarily be widely known for its groundbreaking technological advancements, but it is home to some ambitious innovators and policymakers.

However, the continent’s understanding of the complex matter of IP is lacking, Fernando dos Santos, director general of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), tells WIPR.

Despite this admission, ARIPO is addressing this challenge head-on and is determined to become a hub for IP development on the continent.

To achieve this vision, the organisation realises that it must improve its own internal systems and streamline procedures to become an efficient body. “ARIPO is increasingly becoming a reference not only in the administration of IP rights but also in advocating a better use of IP in the continent,” explains dos Santos. “To that aim, becoming a hub means also being a centre in terms of communications technology systems, training activities and research in IP.”

He adds that IP organisations have been advocating for an approach to development that puts IP at its centre.

Dos Santos says that now governments are starting to understand this goal, the next step is to produce evidence of how IP can be incorporated into the development policies of each country.

“ARIPO can play a role in that regard and this requires more collaboration with new partners such as universities and research institutions in producing that evidence.”

To this end, ARIPO is upgrading the ARIPO Academy in Harare, Zimbabwe to work alongside universities in producing evidence to assist policymakers to create informed decisions on the use of IP for development.

Fighting Counterfeits

In an effort to curb counterfeiting, ARIPO is taking part in different initiatives to raise awareness of the consequences it has on the economy, in conjunction with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Interpol and the World Customs Organization. Employment, tax collection, health, safety and even security can be compromised by the practice of counterfeiting, says dos Santos.

ARIPO and its 19 member states have organised seminars and workshops highlighting the problem.

In collaboration with WIPO, it has also facilitated ‘training of trainers’ programmes for police academies, designed to introduce IP modules and courses to help authorities better understand the topic. Tanzania, Botswana and Uganda are all now teaching IP courses in their police academies, with Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda and Gambia set to introduce them soon.

While dos Santos says these are effective techniques in curbing counterfeiting, he acknowledges that more work needs to be done.

“Vigorous campaigns to educate people about the negative impact of counterfeiting must be undertaken; border measures must be strengthened; seizure and destruction of counterfeit goods must be encouraged in many cases; and legislation must be improved.”

Training and Awareness

An area of focus for ARIPO last year was to revive the organisation’s image as a hub for IP development in Africa.

This aim was largely achieved through its marketing strategy and by developing a business model outlining the use of ARIPO’s newly inaugurated premises as a centre for IP training and awareness. “ARIPO was at the forefront of the development of the ‘Africa Copyright Agenda’ that was jointly adopted by WIPO, ARIPO, collective management organisations and copyright offices in Africa at the ARIPO headquarters in June 2017,” explains dos Santos.

“WIPO and ARIPO developed the ‘Guidelines for the Development of IP Policies for Universities and Research Institutions in Africa’, which will guide African higher learning and research institutions in the development of their internal IP policies.”

IP Figures

When it comes to the number of patent applications filed, the figure has been relatively steady from 2013 to 2017.

Last year, there were 747 applications, up from 697 in 2016. However, the 2017 figure represents a decline on 2015 (780) and 2014 (835).

Industrial design filings from 2013 to 2017 went through a more significant change. There were only 91 for 2017, compared to 219 in 2013, although the 2017 figure is an increase on the 83 reported in 2016.

At 381, the number of trademarks filed in 2017 reached a new peak compared to the previous four years: 296 in 2016; 283 in 2015; 362 in 2014; and 321 in 2013.

Development is Key

A main challenge for ARIPO moving forward will be helping decision-makers understand how IP can help with the continent’s development.

According to dos Santos, IP has been neglected and excluded from the member countries’ main development policies.

“Governments seem to be in a hurry to tackle issues related to hunger, failing policies in agriculture, and lack of innovation,” he says.

“Unfortunately, in many situations they are focusing on the symptoms instead of dealing with the root causes of the lack of creativity and innovation in Africa, which are deeply linked to the low uptake of the IP system in the continent over many years.”

“IP organisations have been advocating for an approach to development that puts ip at its centre.” He adds that the lack of understanding of IP frameworks is part of a bigger problem: that of failing to grasp the role that IP plays in developing the entire African continent.

Furthermore, while there are advantages to the Madrid System—such as African countries benefiting from commonly agreed procedures worldwide—he says there are some difficulties in its implementation “due to outdated legislation in some countries and a lack of domestication of the international instrument at the national level”.

In 2015, ARIPO adopted the Arusha Protocol, in order to protect crop growers’ rights and enhance agricultural productivity, innovation and development in ARIPO’s member states. Currently, there are five signatories to the protocol, although the ratification process is still open.

“The difficult situation of the African continent in terms of agriculture is well known: a young and fast growing population, and perennial hunger which is a result of low levels of agricultural productivity, low yields, crop diseases and cyclical droughts,” says dos Santos.

“The plant variety system is one of the elements that could ensure food sustainability by creating a system that benefits breeders, the seed industry, the farmers at all levels, and in general the African population.”

Working Together

Africa is unusual in that the continent has two regional IP offices. Whereas ARIPO’s member states are spread throughout the continent, its counterpart, the Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI), covers central and north-west countries in Africa.

ARIPO and OAPI serve similar purposes, but they were established in different contexts and circumstances, resulting in two systems. OAPI is more of a unitary system, with the office acting as the sole IP governing body for its member states. ARIPO, on the other hand, operates as a designation system and although it covers several countries, its member states also have individual IP offices.

Last year, the two bodies signed a cooperation agreement that allows them to harmonise their systems, and exchange technical information and develop training, including in the field of creating IP awareness. The cooperation will enable ARIPO and OAPI to offer assistance to each other when needed. Perhaps most important, says dos Santos, the agreement will allow the offices to take common positions on major IP issues affecting their member states at continental and international levels.

“With this agreement, the two organisations will be collaborating more in analysing the recent trends in IP, especially those that affect the African countries, and jointly craft a common position that will assist member states to take informed decision on IP matters,” he tells WIPR.

In addition, this will assist African countries in international negotiations, particularly when it comes to IP norm-setting and policy guidance.

With IP being so complex, combined with a lack of understanding into the issue, why isn’t there just one IP office for the whole continent?

The answer, says dos Santos, is simple: Africa is diverse.

“Africa is not a country but a group of 54 countries with history, traditions, legal frameworks and systems that are different,” he explains.

“On top of that there is a strong sense of sovereignty with regard to sensitive issues such as IP.”

Dos Santos says it’s important to note that there are countries not covered by either ARIPO or OAPI. As a result, a sophisticated and well-planned inclusive process is required to produce a solution to the administration of IP across Africa.

As ARIPO and OAPI continue to work on harmonisation efforts, the African Union is also working on a solution aimed at boosting harmonisation.

“Whatever solution will be brought, it is important to underline that it must consider ARIPO and OAPI as building blocks due to their long history of panAfricanism and technical expertise in the area of IP,” dos Santos says.

While becoming a hub for IP development in Africa is an important part of ARIPO’s strategy, the success of this vision will largely depend on collaboration with others, most notably, OAPI.

ARIPO by numbers:

  • Members of the African Union: 54
  • ARIPO member states: 19
  • Trademark applications in 2017: 381 (a new high compared to the previous four years)
  • Patent applications in 2017: 747
  • Design filings in 2017: 91

This article was written and published by World Intellectual Property Review (WIPR) in their January/ February 2018 magazine.