TCS Daily

Invisible Wealth

By James S. Shikwati - March 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Albert Einstein once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Global market trends are such that African nations must urgently address issues pertaining to intellectual property rights (IPR) if they are going to fit into the global economy and also stimulate inventions and innovations. The challenge facing Africa is how to produce high quality goods and services while at the same time tackling aspects of poverty and unemployment.

In the book "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," Walter Rodney shows how the Western World engaged in atrocities and looting of the African continent, leaving people desperately poor. Some 50 years after most African countries gained independence from Europe, Africans are still queuing for donor funding, investing less in homegrown solutions and African talent. The biggest question is why this is happening in Africa, where people are endowed with creative and innovative minds.

Western countries did not develop wealth merely by exploiting the Third World. Dennis T. Avery in his paper "Sustaining Both Planet and People" argues that what the West did to get rich was to invent the systematic search for knowledge and then share it broadly. This is how it has moved from focusing on natural resources such as "land" to resources such as transistors, radios, and fiber optic cables from sand. Most Third World countries, on the other hand, have focused only on "visible wealth" and "tribal organization." This structure, instead of fostering wealth, promotes war over resources.

Any list of important inventions and innovations rarely indicates participation from Africa, falsely creating an impression that Africans are not creative and innovative. On the contrary, however, long before the colonialists came to Africa, the continent's people had started ventures in medicine, iron smelting, arts, music, house building, and bead-making and curving. The power of innovation was also exhibited in the way they preserved fire for later use, stored foodstuffs and the very fact that they could light a fire by rubbing two sticks together. However, the lack of systematic recording beyond a collective level of property-right recognition robbed many innovators in Africa. Moreover, the lack of a property rights regime that could measure up to the countries that later colonized Africa made it easier for both physical and intellectual property to be seized by the occupying powers. Keeping knowledge secret -- as did metallurgists and medicine men in Africa, without proper records -- robbed this continent of knowledge that could solve some of its biggest problems.

IPR is the term that describes ideas, inventions, technologies, artworks, music and literature that are intangible when first created, but become valuable in tangible forms as products. It is the commercial application of imaginative thought to solving a technical or artistic challenge. Africa is plagued by many problems, ranging from social to economic, that urgently indicate the presence of a unique market opportunity to innovators. Innovations may not necessarily be triggered by IPR regimes but also by the demand for solutions. It is therefore strategic for Africans to be encouraged to solve their own problems as a step to reaping benefits from IPR.

Some of the areas in which IPR can be used include the health sector, agricultural sector and the arts. For instance, malaria was identified as a primary cause of poverty that slows down economic growth in Africa by 1.3 percent. The former Kenyan health minister, Professor Sam Ongeri, estimated that 17 million work days are lost every year due to malaria.

Intellectual Property ownership is a strategic tool Africans can use to tackle diseases of poverty, given the fact that wealthy nations may spend less time on diseases that don't affect them. To stem the tide of HIV-AIDS and malaria in Africa, proper incentives for innovators must be put in place in order to save more Africans from dying. IPR protection does not stop philanthropists and other people who might want to assist the poor from doing so. It simply promotes creativity and rewards innovators.

Intellectuals from Africa migrate to wealthy countries in search of more rewarding challenges, better pay and recognition. They also leave because no effective intellectual property regime has been created that will make them stay home and help their countries create wealth. More often than not, they are harassed and treated with suspicion merely for being intellectuals. To stem brain drain, it's important that Africa build institutions to protect intellectual property.

In the field of agriculture, an intellectual property regime will spur activity among scientists and farmers to facilitate new innovations. These in turn will save Africa from relying on "climate fed" agriculture and promote intelligently driven agricultural practices. Freeing up an agro-based population will enhance other areas of the economy, such as tourism, retail, and other technologically oriented industries. It will also allow Africa to join the biotech industry and save her populations from malnutrition and hunger.

Developed countries have been known to use protection of property rights as a barrier to trade especially in the field of medicine and arts. Third world countries ought to enforce intellectual property protection for their own good while at the same time allowing more innovators to compete in their own countries in order facilitate affordable prices.

What belongs to everyone, belongs to no one, and hence falls in disrepair. Africa must urgently seize this opportunity to protect intellectual property not only in order make her people more innovative and provide solutions to African problems, but also to attract more investment and exchange of goods from other countries.

IPR will boost the innovation process that is so essential to making Africa industrious. It is only through Intellectual Property that Africa will move from focusing only on the "visible wealth" to the invisible. This will not only improve the economies and boost prospects for investment, but it will also reduce conflicts in the continent.

James Shikwati is the Director of the Inter Region Economic Network and Africa Resource Bank Coordinator in Nairobi, Kenya.


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