Interview with Open AIR’s Desmond Oriakhogba

Desmond is a lawyer, and lecturer in law at the University of Benin, Nigeria. He recently completed his PhD research (awaiting examination) in the Department of Commercial Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa (UCT), where he explored the interface between copyright and competition law in relation to the regulation of collecting societies in Nigeria and South Africa. 

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I am a practicing lawyer, and a tenure-track lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Benin, Nigeria from where I obtained my LLB and LLM degrees. I recently completed my PhD research (awaiting examination) in the Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

My PhD thesis explored the interface between copyright and competition law, and examined the regulation regimes for collecting societies in South Africa and Nigeria. It then determined whether the regulation regimes sufficiently address collecting societies’ competition-related concerns in the copyright markets in both countries.

I worked as a research assistant in the Intellectual Property (IP) Unit, UCT and assisted in research projects with Open African Innovation Research (Open AIR) and ASK Justice. Currently, I am the editorial assistant for the South African Intellectual Property Law Journal. I have authored articles in peer-reviewed journals, many of which are listed here.

What is your current project about?

I am currently conducting research at the University of Ottawa with Open AIR as a QES-Advanced Scholar. My project focuses on traditional cultural expression, women beadwork and the empowerment of rural women bead-workers in the KwaZulu Natal (KZN) Province of South Africa.

From existing literature, the beadworks produced by the rural women in KZN are informed by the tradition and culture of the Zulu people. The traditional skills required for the beadworks are transmitted from generation to generation from mothers to their daughters. As such, the beadworks may be regarded as traditional cultural expressions.

The beadworks form part of the domestic life of the rural women. The beadworks are created in a community of women with shared experiences of historical segregation and discrimination (Apartheid), poverty, illiteracy, racism, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS. The women bead-workers are largely sole breadwinners in the patriarchal-dominant KZN communities.

Historically, the beadworks were produced out of the need to communicate these shared experiences to men and other women in the communities. However, they now have huge cultural, social and economic significance and have been interwoven into the tourism business in South Africa. They have also been incorporated into modern fashion and are being used as a medium of HIV/AIDS awareness and advocacy. Further, they are sold as artefacts to museums and art galleries locally and internationally with huge financial returns. Thus, apart from tradition and culture, the beadwork has both gender and entrepreneurial dimensions.

My project specifically studies the Woza Moya Project of the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust (HACT) in South Africa, from the perspective of traditional cultural expression, gender and women empowerment. The HACT is a non-governmental organisation seeking to empower people infected with HIV/AIDS in KZN. Through the Woza Moya project, the HACT empowers the women bead-workers by providing them a platform to produce and promote their beadworks.

The HACT also trains the women bead-workers and enables them to earn a living from their beadworks. However, there seems to be less emphasis on the preservation of the traditional cultural expression represented in the beadworks. There also appears to be no governance framework within the Woza Moya project for management of the traditional cultural expressions.

Worse still, the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment Act 28, 2013 (IPLA), which provides certain governance frameworks for traditional knowledge generally in South Africa, has not come into force yet. Moreover, the IPLA was not enacted with the gender dimension of traditional cultural expressions in mind.

My project proceeds on the premise that, to be sustainable, any programme meant to empower the KZN rural women bead-workers must preserve, and enable them to benefit directly from third party exploitation of the traditional cultural expression in the beadworks. Also, such programmes must address the challenges faced by women bead-workers because of their gender.

To this end, my research project seeks to develop a legal and institutional knowledge governance framework that will address perceived gender issues associated with the beadwork and ensure sustainable empowerment of the rural women bead-workers under the Woza Moya project. The knowledge governance framework will also be a model for similar work related to women across Africa.

Can you give examples of the impact of this work?

Gender issues are quickly becoming very relevant in conversations around traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions, and intellectual property generally. The crux of the conversation includes how to tackle the challenges faced by women in their innovative and creative endeavours, as well as how to empower innovative and creative women.

Open AIR is leading the discussion from an African innovation perspective through its multi-disciplinary cutting-edge research. Specifically, Open AIR is continuously investigating how open collaborative innovation can help African businesses scale up and seize the opportunities of a global knowledge economy. As well, global knowledge governance systems will ensure that the social and economic benefits of these opportunities are shared inclusively across society.

Further, Open AIR increasingly seeks to resolve these questions through the lens of gender equality and the economic empowerment of women and girls. Overall, Open AIR research demonstrates that many innovative activities are on-going in Africa. Most of these activities are driven by African women in traditional and cultural settings. Indeed, my project is being undertaken against this backdrop. It largely parallels Open AIR’s ongoing case studies that are being conducted by Eliamani Laltaika on the Maasai Women Development Organisation (MWEDO) and Helen Chuma-Okoro on the makers of traditional textiles in Southwestern Nigeria.

In practical terms, my project will advance a theoretical framework for assessing the gender and creativity issues relating to the KZN rural women’s beadworks. The framework will also be useful to assess other women works that are shaped by tradition and culture in Africa. Further, my project is meant to effectively influence policies and regulations relating to the management of traditional cultural expressions embodied in women’s work in South Africa.

Specifically, my project will develop community-based knowledge governance protocols which will enable the KZN women bead-workers to directly administer their traditional cultural expression represented in the beadwork.

How will this fit into your longer-term goals?

As a mid-career academic and an emerging researcher in the area of intellectual property and traditional knowledge generally, my long-term goal includes reaching the apex of my academic career. I am also striving to be a leading voice in intellectual property and traditional knowledge governance issues in and from Africa. Moreover, I want to be able to forge effective international collaborative research networks capable of influencing policies and laws through cutting-edge research.

Importantly, my research project will be conducted within Open AIR’s international collaborative network and under the guidance of renowned scholars such as professors Jeremy DeBeer, Tobias Schonwetter, Caroline Ncube and Chidi Oguamanam. In effect, the project will fast-track my understanding of the dynamics and management of international collaborative research projects.

It will also enable me to build my international research network. Ultimately, the project will set me on the path to becoming a strong influence in the area of intellectual property and traditional knowledge governance from an African perspective. Further, the project will broaden my knowledge and understanding of intellectual property and traditional knowledge and their intersection with gender and developmental concerns.

This will in turn enable me to engage future practical issues within the focus of the project through teaching, policy, and legal advocacy. Since the research output of my project will be published in highly rated open-access journals, my aim is to enhance my academic ranking and work towards upward career movement.