April 26th marks World Intellectual Property Day whose theme is “Intellectual Property and Small Medium Enterprises: Taking Your Ideas to Market.”
Intellectual Property (IP) generally refers to the assigning of ownership for both physical and intangible creations and the recognition of such rights when it comes to the usage and exploitation of these works.
However, many creators, entrepreneurs and businesses in the developing world are yet to fully exploit the potential of IP either due to ignorance or lack of resources.
The registering and exploitation of IP holds immense economic potential and benefits. For instance, technology companies and start-ups in industries such as manufacturing, software and pharmaceuticals utilize registered patents to value their market capitalization and access credit.
Generally, local small businesses may start by branding their products. Market and customer recognition can then be built by the registering of trademarks. These offer exclusive rights and create value as they can be commercially exploited through sale and licensing.
Design works and especially industrial designs are highly valuable in the manufacturing sector. With the coming into effect of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA), trade is expected to increase business opportunities among an estimated 1.2 billion people. IP holders will hold a distinct advantage because registered rights are protected by law.
Creative industries have a huge potential for the exploitation of IP. Countries like Korea have embraced IP as a key pillar for sustainable development. In a recent report by the Bank of Korea, in 2020 the country recorded a US$160 million trade surplus from art and culture copyrights including music and TV shows.
By registering and exploiting IP brands, the African music sub-sector is leading the way in illustrating how copyright recognition and enforcement is creating a viable industry and empowering thousands. The development of collective management organizations (CMOs) and digital platforms are helping individuals and companies along the value chain benefit because of payments through royalties and licensing.
However, for intellectual property to truly benefit the majority, awareness and adoption by entrepreneurs is key. Small businesses should put IP at the core of their strategy. To aid in this, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has developed an online tool for assessing business competitiveness through IP assets, thus helping stakeholders identify and create value. This comes in handy especially for those looking to expand internationally.
In many African countries, agriculture is a key industry and in most cases the largest employer. The Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) system was set up to encourage innovation of new plant varieties. Countries can then invest in developing crop varieties that are best suited for their regions.
County and regional development authorities can also use geographical indicators to build brands that identify and communicate their uniqueness. Adoption by co-operatives and groups can add immediate brand value to foodstuffs and offer differentiation.
Another way that IP directly benefits communities is through the protection of contemporary expressions of traditional and cultural knowledge. These include unique designs of items such as handicrafts, musical instruments and fabrics.
A key challenge is the lack of adequate technical expertise to advise on the processes of securing IP rights.
As a matter of priority, universities and institutions should set up and implement intellectual property departments. These can act as development hubs and educational centers to serve the communities that surround them.
IP awareness among learners and entrepreneurs will better prepare business practitioners to build generational African industries that can rely on their IP assets to effectively compete globally.
However, adoption and enforcement of progressive IP laws is crucial, especially when dealing with new technologies and combating counterfeits. Innovation without robust intellectual property safeguards is not sustainable.