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Protect innovation to give youth jobs

Wednesday March 18 2020
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Joe Mucheru (left), the Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communications and Technology, at the Nairobi Innovation Week event at the University of Nairobi on March 8, 2017. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By DONATUS NJOROGE

The narrative for youth employment is changing fast since technology has set the bar high to bring creative thinking and innovation to most societal problems. Innovation as the backbone of pioneered ideas is now the bridge to opportunities.

New products, brands and designs come into the market every day as a result of constant creativity and innovation and, no doubt, the owners of the differentiated products need legal protection.

From stopgap solutions to long-term dynasty-building patents, the moral rights of the ideas need to be addressed through intellectual property laws that prevent piracy.

As the focus stays on the protection of ideas against commercialisation by intellectual thieves, the youth that lack the financial resources are vulnerable from exploitation. The question is how can they be protected from their ideas being stolen?

One would point at the institutional laws that Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi) is mandated to spearhead to reach to the isolated rural parts of the country where innovators are sprouting to create awareness on how to safeguard innovations.

But the truth is, lack of human resource capacity and constrained budgets prevent the organisation to reach the grassroots.

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Kenya has established itself as a regional giant in innovation, and is touted as Africa’s Silicon Savannah but there is a need for policies that will assist the youth to not only patent ideas, but be encouraged to partner with like-minded industrialists to commercialise.

Intellectual property certification lying in files is of no use without funding to generate revenue.

Looking back, in the past decade there has been the innovation zeitgeist that is almost similar to the Silicon Valley in California. We have seen home-grown innovations in incubation hubs, learning institutions and social groups.

This has propelled Kenya to be ranked as the second-most innovative country in sub-Saharan Africa behind South Africa, according to the “Global Innovation Index 2019”.

There’s no doubt about Kenyans being intellectually rich, the challenge is that there is need to take intellectual property rights seriously.

However, as creators of products, the innovators are expected to benefit from their work. Without protection, the inventor becomes disheartened due to the unfair practices in the industry by opportunists.

The inventor’s role in the creativity is to create a win-win situation where the owner gains monopoly over the invention for a limited period, while the public benefits from it before the protection period expires.

Kenya is affiliated to the World intellectual Property Organization since 1971.

Four bodies are mandated to deal with intellectual property protection: Kipi, Kenya Copyright Board (Kecobo), Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) and Anti-Counterfeit Agency (ACA).

The number of patents has always been used as a measure of knowledge transfer but one of the constraints in Kenya is the weak Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) culture. Patent applications filed by our innovators have relatively been low compared to other countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, with which Kenya benchmarks on economic development. This casts doubt on our collective commitment on the protection of our ideas, the building block of a knowledge-based economy.

An inventor with difficulties in meeting the technical demands of drafting a successful application requires guidance. Patent drafting, a very rare skill in Kenya, is a critical area that should be grown to produce qualified professionals to advise and assist in the applications. No local institution trains in it.

These many hurdles disadvantage inventors, exposing them to predators locally and deep-pocketed multinationals.

Nairobi is home to more than 30 tech hubs and incubators, giving space to young developers, designers, researchers and exposing them to venture capitalist and angel investors.

However, it is difficult to attract venture capital (VC) funding if investors don’t see a uniquely valuable opportunity which can best be proved in form of IP protection. In some countries, a patent is often used as security for a bank loan by their holders, and as an investment by financial institutions.

In the corporate world, counterfeiting and trademark infringement pose serious challenges to innovation and industry, but it’s worrying that most Kenyan corporates don’t find the need to protect their ideas. Protecting intellectual property rights is protecting market share and revenues.

Mr Njoroge, a Moonshot fellow and Global Innovation through Science and Technology awardee, teaches at Mount Kenya University. [email protected]

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