Protecting your inventions: IP and the perceptions of Kenyan startups

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Economies can lose billions of dollars due to piracy and IP infringement. Therefore, a country that values intellectual property (IP) can potentially create an excellent environment for IT innovation and economic growth.

The 2008 survey conducted by the International Data Corporation (IDC) revealed that Kenya could create 977 IT jobs and the local IT industry could contribute $73.60 million to GDP (an increase of $40.01 million) by reducing the current 80% software piracy rate by 10 percentage points over four years.

Perhaps the most successful case of IP protection is the Indian software industry. Between 1994-95 and 2001-02, the industry’s gross earnings expanded from $787 million to $10.2 billion (a large proportion of which were software exports, which grew in value during the period from $489 million to $7.8 billion) and by March 2002, the software and services sector employed about 520,000 workers.

It is certain that there is a wealth of creative talent in developing countries – such as software developers in Kenya, Jamaica or the traditional artists in Nepal – which could be harnessed to generate more wealth for emerging economies. But this will only happen if there are local infrastructures for technological and cultural industries.

During a recent CIPIT conference held at Strathmore University, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communication stated, “…Kenya has begun to understand the complex process of protecting their inventions. This is important because we have not done it before and we are at a period where many Kenyans are coming up with many inventions; and this I thank God because He has given us too many problems and that is the reason why we are becoming very innovative.”

As agencies such as WIPO, KIPI, CIPIT and the World Bank have pointed out in the past, it is important that developing countries develop mechanisms to protect and benefit from the commercial exploitation of their own past and present creative works. Despite the challenges of lack of data, unskilled expertise, long processes among others, there is huge need for the tech startups to invest their time and money on intellectual property rights. That way they will be able to reap the benefits of investment and financial opportunities, enhance competitiveness and facilitate establishment of joint ventures.

Despite the possible benefits of increasing IP rights in developing economies, there are instances where IP in technological innovations may hamper or limit innovation. Having stringent IP laws in an economic environment that is relatively young could impede the process of innovation of a country or region as compared to a mature economic environment. The idea of innovations and development in a tender economy is generally characterized by a lot of experimentation and “trial and error” learning. Entities that exist in such an environment need time to learn and grow. Introducing strict IP laws in such an environment may as well condemn the entire economy and subsequently discourage the concept of creation and technological innovation.

Additionally, intellectual property may at times be viewed as a stumbling block to the freedom of information that is enshrined in the universal rights of every individual. A common catchphrase among critics of intellectual property is that “information wants to be free.” The argument being made is that intellectual products by their nature seek out the widest possible audience and diffusion. As illustrated by unsuccessful attempts to prevent pirating, it is very difficult to stop consumers from taking intellectual property if there is a very high demand. The attempt to enforce intellectual property rights may end up alienating technology developers from their consumers.

The perception of IP in Kenya

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iHub recently conducted a study of how IP is seen by startups in ICT hubs in Kenya. Many startups feel that these IP processes are actively being practised in Western countries, and hence many of the Western businesses have ended up being successful and acquiring huge financial opportunities. Therefore there is a perception that replicating the same culture in Kenya will similarly lead to an increase in financial success. This may not necessarily hold true in countries like Kenya due to cultural, market, and historical differences.

More research is needed to better understand how IP can be appropriately implemented in Kenya and the balance between open knowledge and intellectual property. While the model of implementation might be different as from the West, Kenya should look at lessons that can be learned from our Western counterparts that have been successful in technological innovation.

ihub chart 2

Kenya’s IP model can be defined as new, lacking in transparency, relying on manual information systems, lacking in adequate skilled capacity, and lacking in integration and credibility. Kenya is on the verge of understanding and adopting IP systems and with the rise of IP service providers, IP clinics and online resources, there is need to streamline this ecosystem in a way that the different stakeholders work collaboratively to assist tech startups in the relevant IP processes.

Tech startups should have a positive mind set and not be driven by the ‘small company syndrome’ where IP tools are perceived to be only meant for large, established companies. The start-ups should work with a vision to grow and gain market credibility beyond local boundaries.

This article by Hilda Moraa, Kelvin Murage, and Rhoda Omenya originally appeared on VC4Africa and is published with permission.

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