Few months ago, I argued that the major difference between Africa and the United States is not necessarily democracy, infrastructure and weather, rather, the presence and absence of intellectual property rights (IPRs). And in my new book, I began the preface by discussing how technological progress along with IPRs has changed the course of humanity.
Without IPRs, it would be difficult for Africa to progress because invention may not easily transition to innovation without ownership and commercial rights to ideas. I argued that Africa may still be where most developed world is about five hundred years ago when despite legions of inventors, the world was not expanding its gross world product because commercialization of ideas was low. Magazines profiled inventors who in most cases died very poor.
We made the case that IPR was fundamental in accelerating the penetration of technology as investors were incentivized to put their resources into them understanding the commercial opportunities. Before then, why put your resources where the law would not protect you from reaping the benefits of risk-taking? With stronger IPR, technology diffused and productivity improved. That affected the quality of life with the result of higher living standards in most developed world.
The US has a patent system that works and quest for innovation is protected by law. What could become a hubby in Africa could turn out to be a Fortune 500 company in US.
This was well captioned by Reneta Milcheva who gave a very good example using William, the boy that harvested the wind in Africa. His was a hobby, but Steve Jobs’s Ipad was a business creation. If William have had a similar experience in America, he will be running a Fortune 1000 company today. He created value and instead of pursuing commercialization, they encouraged him to become a hobbyist, teaching other kids. Though around him people needed his product, it was not possible to meet that demand because that was in Africa. He has since gone for more education, which is good. And he might turn out to become a banker or lawyer in few years though he has a genius of Edison.
Simply, in Africa, there is no future for his idea since he cannot guarantee that people will not steal it if he begins to profit from it. So, for him, the investors see it as a hobby, no business opportunity. Why not? If William makes the first wind system, his friends will copy him and no law will be there to protect him.
I say it today: The greatest obstacle to Africa’s development is a weak legal system that discourages innovation.
When invention comes from Africa, it is unique. We have men that understand herbs and their wonders on poison. We have ‘orthopedic’ surgeons that treat bone fractures across African villages. We have people that can sing and craft the best story lines. In all these cases, there is no business. Simply, most are just hobbies and investors see no opportunity because there are no IPRs covering them. Where you could have had a Pfizer incarnate, the person dies and the idea goes. In a continent that could not develop an indigenous way of writing despite centuries of existence, all these ideas that were refined, processed and improved by generations are just wasted because a succession gap exists today. Who cares? Not the governments!
But interestingly, Jan Goossenaerts sent a link on the possibility of WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) developing a system to patent folklores. If that happens, I can see smiles out of the villages in Africa. It sounds exciting but I do not know how it will work. Now is the time to begin that process of putting IPR across most inventions in Africa so that they will have investible values. We could have a folklore industry where one copyrights his story and sells the right? After all, what is the difference between music and folklore? One is free, the other you pay for it!
Credits: I must acknowledge all the insights I got from many people that commented and emailed after I wrote the piece of IPR. Thanks.