What We’ve learned

Open AIR’s phase one research revolved around two interrelated hypotheses: (1) that African innovation and creativity are not properly valued by current IP-related metrics; and (2) that African innovation and creativity are being constrained by sub-optimal IP-related policies and inefficient IP-related practices.

Our aim was to determine how Africans could harness existing or potential IP systems to both measure and facilitate innovation and creativity – in pursuit of more participatory, effective, and just models of “open” development. It was this aim that generated the two-pronged research methodology: (1) case studies and (2) foresight scenario-building.

Scenario-building breakaway session during Open AIR workshop in Nairobi, March 2012.
Scenario-building breakaway session during Open AIR workshop in Nairobi, March 2012.

The qualitative case studies consisted of researchers looking at collaborative innovation  topics linked to copyrights, patents, trademarks, informal protections, traditional knowledge (TK), and IP from publicly funded research.

Meanwhile, the foresight research component was an extensive collaborative process, by researchers and key stakeholders outside the network, to determine the drivers of change and identify and dissect possible scenarios for the future.

13 case studies

Six case-study thematic areas were developed:

  1. copyrights: empowering collaborators in creative industries
  2. patents: open innovation for cleaner energy technologies
  3. trademarks: collective agricultural branding strategies
  4. informal mechanisms
  5. the traditional knowledge (TK) commons
  6. sharing the benefits of publicly funded research
Open AIR's Helen Chuma-Okoro (left) with the leader of a Nigerian textile design collective featured in a case study.
Open AIR’s Helen Chuma-Okoro (left) with the leader of a Nigerian textile design collective featured in a case study.

Out of these thematic areas, thirteen cases studies were successfully conducted and published as chapters in the aforementioned volume Innovation and Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa.  As a supplement to the case-study book, four Briefing Notes were produced to provide an overview of Open AIR findings and possible policy impacts in relation to:

  1. innovation transfers between informal and formal sectors
  2. communal management of innovative TK
  3. place-based branding of localised products
  4. management of outputs from publicly funded research

Three scenarios

Open AIR’s scenario-building work generated three scenarios for the governance of knowledge and innovation in Africa in the year 2035, as outlined in the book Knowledge and Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future.

The development of our first scenario, called “Wireless Engagement”, was led by economist Prof. Nagla Rizk of A2K4D  in Cairo, Open AIR’s North African Hub. This scenario envisions formalised African innovation enterprises that are widely interconnected with the global service economy.

Nagla Rizk presenting the "Wireless Engagement" scenario to delegates at the 2013 Open AIR Conference on Innovation and IP in Africa, in Cape Town.
Nagla Rizk presenting the “Wireless Engagement” scenario to delegates at the 2013 Open AIR Conference on Innovation and IP in Africa, in Cape Town.

In this Africa, IP protections are quite formalised and standardised via the well-known existing formal tools of copyrights, patents, trademarks, and industrial designs. The result of this standardised knowledge governance framework is the preservation of existing forms of business relationships based on the protection of proprietary rights.

While this scenario is one of innovation and economic growth in African settings, it is also a scenario in which access to technology and education are crucial. Africans lacking access to technology and education are hard-pressed to participate in innovative segments of the economy under this scenario.

The second scenario, entitled “Informal – the New Normal”, was led by Ugandan researcher Dr. Dick Kawooya of the University of South Carolina School of Library and Information Science. In this scenario, informal small-scale enterprises are in the forefront of innovative activity, organised around informal knowledge governance mechanisms such as trust, interpersonal networks, customer loyalty, and first-mover advantage. The formal economy is not eliminated in this scenario, however, as many formal business structures cooperate with, and behave as support structures for, their vibrant informal peers; the formal actors demand goods from informal producers, provide skills and capital to the informal economy, and serve as trusted conduits for state support.

Construction of the third scenario, called “Sincerely Africa”, was under the leadership of Nigerian national Prof. Chidi Oguamanam of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, who is an expert on the developmental dimensions of IP.

Chidi Oguamanam (left) and Tesh Dagne receiving feedback on the Open AIR "Sincerely Africa" scenario during a breakaway session at the Open AIR Conference on Innovation and IP in Africa, Cape Town, December 2013.
Chidi Oguamanam (left) and Tesh Dagne receiving feedback on the Open AIR “Sincerely Africa” scenario during a breakaway session at the Open AIR Conference on Innovation and IP in Africa, Cape Town, December 2013.

This scenario is one in which many of the most successful African innovators are those who tap into traditional cultural practices and inter-generational knowledge. Innovators in this scenario gravitate toward culturally grounded IP structures, such as traditional knowledge commons arrangements, in response to the need for sustainable resource management (in the face of growing environmental problems) and in order to guard against outsiders misappropriating their TK or undermining the biodiversity integral to TK.

Ultimately, Africa is a large and diverse continent and it can be expected that elements of all three of these scenarios will be present  in 2035. This will depend largely on the particular conditions in any given country, sub-national region, or locality. It is also likely that African nations’ ability to participate as equal partners with other nations in the global economy will be determined to some extent by how well African policymakers craft policy measures that are truly appropriate to African innovation settings. Policies will be needed that cater to the full range of possible IP management and governance practices by African innovators, from the formal to the informal, from the traditional to the more contemporary.

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The Open African Innovation Research Partnership