Despite Africa’s strong economic growth and improving status as a competitive place to do business, the continent has an underwhelming record on creating and protecting intellectual property (IP). No African nation was among the top 20 countries for patent applications in 2013, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. 
Why does this matter? In today’s globally competitive environment, the creation and management of knowledge plays a critical role in building and sustaining national wealth and integration with the global economy. While natural resources continue to provide 42 per cent of all government income in African countries, other nations — increasingly from the global South — are powering ahead with the creation and protection of ideas. A third of the 2.6 million patents filed worldwide in 2013 came from China, now the biggest single contributor of new innovations. 
Anyone who knows Africa understands that this is not due to a lack of innovation. It is a combination of a lack of awareness about the importance of IP protection and poor access to educational resources both for individuals and institutions — another legacy of the broader trend of disinvestment in higher education, science and technology throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Speaking to SciDev.Net last year about a 2006 study by the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion in Nigeria, the office’s director-general, Umar Bindir, said: “The country’s know-how — the culture of creating intellectual property and protecting it as intellectual property rights as well as transferring it into industries — was very weak.”
Similarly, commenting on the low number of patents in Kenya, Isaac Rutenberg, director of the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law at Strathmore University in Nairobi, said this is “due to a lack of patent expertise … and a lack of funds available to hire expensive patent drafting services”.
“Knowledge and innovation, raising awareness about the value of intellectual property and providing easy access to that system will become ever more important.”
A number of African governments have improved their national patent legislation recently. Kenya, for example, established a National Innovation Agency in 2013 to facilitate science, technology and innovation, help local institutions file patent applications and take legal action if IP rights are infringed. 
On a regional level, the African Union, under the stewardship and vision of the distinguished scientist Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has thrown its support behind the concept of a Pan-African Intellectual Property Organization.  Actions such as this elevate intellectual property protection in the political agenda across the continent, and represent one step towards setting pan-African standards.
Yet, outside major businesses and multinationals, awareness of and access to intellectual property rights remain poor. As an estimated 11 million young Africans are set to enter the job market each year over the next decade, efforts must be made to help them support their ideas, too.
Unlocking IP for young people
In 2013, Microsoft launched the 4Afrika Initiative, which invests in technology for economic development on the continent by funding start-ups and other activities. This includes a new 4Afrika IP Hub in Kenya — an online portal that aims to help young innovators better understand different methods for protecting their software so they can enjoy the economic benefits of their creations.
Working with universities and other educational institutions to produce the learning resources, the hub features several online learning modules that provide a general introduction to IP and innovation, alongside additional commercialisation strategies. It also gives early-stage developers the opportunity to register their software applications, safeguarding them from future exploitation.
Examples such as this show how a traditionally complicated area of law can be made accessible to financially constrained young people, providing them with tools to protect their creations. Working with governments to get the legal framework and registration processes in place is an ongoing and significant task — yet the Microsoft initiative demonstrates the potential value of offering a straightforward resource gateway to a digitally literate and savvy generation.
Similar support platforms are becoming increasingly popular in the ever-growing network of ‘tech hubs’ across Africa, helping young entrepreneurs by showing the potential value of their innovations. One notable example is the Hypercube Hub in Zimbabwe, which held a webchat and discussion event last year on digitisation and copyright law. Another is kLab of Kigali, Rwanda, which holds workshops to help tech entrepreneurs protect their creations from exploitation.
As Africa continues to strive to move from a resource-led development path to one underpinned by intellectual skills, knowledge and innovation, raising awareness about the value of intellectual property and providing easy access to that system will become ever more important. While government-led legal frameworks are critical in the long term, raising awareness through educational and business institutions is equally crucial if Africa’s young people are to find their rightful place in the global economy.
Lord Boateng is currently the cochair of the African IP Trust and trustee of the Planet Earth Institute, an NGO working to support science, technology and innovation in Africa. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This opinion was commissioned to accompany a two hour online live debate on Africa’s knowledge economy that SciDev.Net will be hosting on 24 April from 1300 to 1500 British Summer Time (GMT+1). The debate, staged in conjunction with the Planet Earth Institute, will explore some of the myths, risks and rhetoric surrounding Africa’s knowledge economy.