About five hundred years ago, generations that lived apart did not experience any major change in their standard of livings. Global productivity was very low and man was generally poor. Yes, there were empires and kingdoms, but on average the world was on static economic expansion.
But with emergence of mass penetrated technology, things began to change. The industrial revolution was a quintessential moment in modern history. Technology brought productivity and man became richer. Standard of living on average improved. It remains till today that when technology penetrates en mass in any economy, national productivity improves, and living standards advance.
There is another caveat to this development. Intellectual property right (IPR) is a cardinal part of this productivity. Without it, technology will not advance and innovation is stalled. The old world was an era of weak IPR and that was instrumental to the lack of wealth creation. People invented things in arts, engineering, and medicine but no mass wealth was created. Lack of IPR prevented meaningful capitalism. It prevented the pursuit of innovation since ideas could be stolen and commercialized with no penalty. The return to innovation was very low and that was why the world had many inventors and few innovators.
Today, we read about inventors that developed nearly all the engineering principles in use today. They had ideas, bright people and created prototypes. They were celebrated as icons and legends. But many died poor. They could not transition from inventors to innovators, partly because lack of IPR unmotivated desire for commercialization, despite the presence of markets and engineering know-how.
Two things have changed the world: technology and IPR. While every culture has its technology which has helped it to adapt and survive, the same cannot be said about IPR. In ancient Africa, there were herbalists who could use herbs to cure the bites from the most poisonous snakes. There were women who could help deliver babies in the farm. There were orthopedic ‘doctors’ who knew how to repair the worst of bone problems. But in all these cases that involved extraordinary inventions, there was no IPR to protect the trade.
In contemporary Africa, the IPR that exists is not better than the one that existed 500 years ago in most western world. From Zimbabwe meltdown to ethnic clashes in Nigeria, many continue to suffer because of opaque and redundant property rights. In a continent that failed to develop a widespread indigenous way of writing before colonialism, many world changing ideas on science and medicine were lost through oral folklores and tradition. Unfortunately, not much has changed in preserving, owning and respecting IPR in sub-Sahara Africa.
In a continent known for years of impoverishment, poor leadership, and vicious intrastate conflicts, the United States has an opportunity to lead. With its generous citizens working in remote parts of Africa, America occupies a pivotal position in the future of the continent. The US must help Africa develop a strong culture of IPR and move it from pre-civilization era into the 21st century. Simply, Africa cannot prosper until its gets a practical and working IPR culture.
It does not matter how much aids and loans they get from foreign agencies. Without IPR, nations cannot innovate and without innovation, any economy dies a natural slow death. IPR is the catalyst that drives national technology policy, making it implementable and sustainable. You cannot have a better technology policy than a working IPR.
With a strong IPR, inventors could become innovators. Across the continent, there are crusades on technology policies; but no one is paying attention to the abysmal IPR culture. Weak IPR hurts Africans more than foreign trade partners. It destroys any African creativity. For instance, the Nigerian movie industry would have made more impacts on Nigerian economy if there is a strong IPR protection in the industry.
As the continent makes progress to redesign its economic landscape through supports from United States, the hurdle of IPR still persists. Over the years, I have noticed how difficult it is to sustain a creative technology venture in Africa. I founded a technology firm upon college graduation in Nigeria. But after few months, the business model was destroyed when anyone could use my idea to profit. I closed the business and joined a bank. The laws are weak to protect from piracy and copyright infringements. This problem continues to undermine the abilities to have an organic evolution of African indigenous technology success.
It is an illusion for African governments to think that multinational companies will take them serious on the creative side of business when they allow boys in Accra, Lagos, and Nairobi to hawk pirated foreign software openly without consequences. Many African entrepreneurs suffer more from weak IPR than lack of infrastructures like electricity and road networks.
Having traveled across the continent, I have this confidence that US agencies and nongovernmental organizations could help beyond health and food by assisting to modern African IPR structure. A strong IPR will nourish the ingenuity and creativity in African arts, technology and business by empowering some of the least educated to have protection over their ideas. When start-ups are guaranteed protections on their ideas, America will notice that some of the health problems in Africa can be solved by Africans. That pure greed to build wealth through innovation is universal and IPR will give that to Africans. Until then, the pace of development will remain in stasis.