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Reforms to Africa’s patchwork of IP regimes show a commitment to a brighter future, according to Bemanya Twebaze, director general of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization.
Getting young people on board with IP and seeing its socioeconomic impact across member states are just two things that are close to Bemanya Twebaze’s heart. The current director general of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) talks to WIPR to explain how he hopes to position the organisation as a driver of creativity and innovation, ready for the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions.
What do you enjoy most about your role, and what are its most challenging aspects?
I am in my third year as the DG, and the organisation is heading toward greater heights.
What I enjoy the most is seeing the impact IP is making on our member states’ socioeconomic development, especially for SMEs. The statistics have shown a marked improvement for all IP rights filings, with designs and utility models almost doubling last year. We also registered considerably fewer lapses or expirations of patent applications.
"There is a growing recognition of the need for effective protection and enforcement of IP rights."We have positioned ARIPO as the premium IP organisation, with our success registered in membership growth. The Republic of Cape Verde became the 22nd member of ARIPO in July 2022 and acceded to four ARIPO Protocols out of five.
We are focused on offering exceptional IP services as mandated in the Lusaka Agreement and the various protocols we implement. We concentrate on membership growth, accession to our protocols, IP promotion and capacity building in the member states, and enhancement of strategic partnerships.
Last year, we made significant strides toward attaining greater financial sustainability, and our revenue grew by 19%.
Furthermore, the Secretariat commenced a pilot project on the establishment of IP clubs in ARIPO member states’ secondary schools in March 2022. The project, funded by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Funds-In-Trust Korea, is geared towards creating IP awareness and building respect for IP among 13-to-18-year-olds.The project was deployed in Botswana, Malawi, and Zimbabwe as pilot countries, with a view to cover all the ARIPO member states eventually. This is one initiative close to my heart, as engaging the youth to appreciate IP early is critical.
The most challenging aspect of my role has been how best to increase the number of filings from our member states. According to WIPO statistics, Africa needs to catch up, recording an average of 0.6% of the global filings.
However, we are creating awareness of IP, especially at institutions of higher learning that generate 90% of innovation in Africa. We are also sharing information on how IP benefits all and how to file, through training and the use of mass media.
Challenges for IP protection include the need for consistent and coherent national IP policies in most countries and appropriate laws and enforcement mechanisms. Further, most countries still need to address IP issues in their national development plans.
Bemanya Twebaze, Director General, ARIPO
A lack of awareness of IP rights in general, processes for acquisition, and the inability to afford registration fees pose further challenges.
In addition, there needs to be more technical capacity and infrastructure at IP offices. A lack of public awareness of the dangers of counterfeiting and piracy, and a lack of sufficient and credible data on the prevalence of counterfeiting and piracy, might limit policy interventions.
What do you see as the most significant IP-related developments in Africa over the past year?
One significant development was the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which includes provisions on IP, including the protection of trademarks, patents, and copyrights.
Under Phase II negotiations, the green light has effectively been given to the establishment of an IP Office under the auspices of the AfCFTA Secretariat, and a draft IP protocol has been recommended.
What followed were the sweeping IP reforms across the continent—the updated trademark laws, the heightened focus on patent systems and more focus on the protection of geographical indications—and all these are meant to align with said continental developments as the IP low-hanging fruits in the continental marketplace.
In recent years, several African countries have also been implementing reforms to their broader IP laws and systems. For example, in 2020, Nigeria passed the Copyright Amendment Bill to modernise its copyright laws, which was concluded in the first quarter of 2023.
Kenya and Uganda launched their IP policies in 2019 and 2020 respectively to strengthen their IP systems; and in 2022, Botswana launched its national IP Policy.
Another important development was the adoption of the Kampala Protocol on Voluntary Registration of Copyright and Related Rights in August 2021. The Protocol seeks to establish a regional database on copyright and related rights and provide copyright holders with the means of presumption as to authorship and ownership.
Regional Economic Communities are also moving to strengthen regional approaches to IP issues by establishing IPR frameworks.
For example, the Southern African Development Community teamed with ARIPO in 2022 to build capacity in the member states to sensitise them on IP and guide them to use flexibilities for development in TRIPS [the WIPO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights]. This is because many of these countries are ranked as LDCs [least developed countries] and thus have this policy space to utilise to their advantage. So far, there has yet to be much uptake.
Overall, IP is becoming more important in Africa, and there is a growing recognition of the need for effective protection and enforcement of IP rights to support innovation, creativity, and economic growth. As this unfolds, ARIPO is well positioned to work as it already is, with Interpol and the judiciary in Africa to ensure that enforcement remains a critical part of IP rights.
What is the economic and legal landscape for NFTs and virtual goods in Africa?
It is still in its infancy. However, there is a growing interest in these goods among African artists, entrepreneurs, and investors. In recent years, the art market in Africa has grown significantly.
With the emergence of NFTs, African artists are now able to monetise their art in a new way by having a platform to compete with others all over the world, and access audiences who may otherwise be inaccessible.
Currently, no specific regulations in Africa govern NFTs or virtual goods. However, some countries are looking into implementing regulations to protect investors and consumers; for example, in South Africa, the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) has warned investors about the risks associated with investing in cryptocurrencies, including NFTs.
In addition, there are concerns about the environmental impact of NFTs, particularly the high energy consumption required for their creation and trading. Many African countries are already grappling with environmental concerns and may be cautious about embracing NFTs and virtual goods due to their potential negative environmental impact.
Meanwhile, many African artists have created forums and communities, enabling digital artists to gain momentum through virtual exhibitions and sales. And Osinachi [the first African crypto artist to auction NFTs via Christies] rivalled Beeple’s NFTs in terms of value.
Overall, the economic and legal landscape for NFTs and virtual goods in Africa is still evolving.
Counterfeits in Africa are a well-known issue, especially in Kenya. How should ARIPO and other IP stakeholders approach the problem?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), substandard and falsified medicines kill 800,000 people globally each year; Africa is the most affected, where 30-60% of essential medicines in circulation are falsified or substandard.
Africa’s critical products are still being manufactured and packaged in other parts of the world; infringement and infiltration can occur at any point in the supply and distribution chain. Considering its number of countries, cultural and religious diversity, and laws that change from country to country, it is complicated for a destination country to regulate, track, and quality-assure products based on local laws and interests alone.
Reports by the Organization For Economic, Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the EU Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) in 2019 showed that counterfeit goods in Kenya represented 3.3% of world trade, worth $6.27 trillion, highlighting a massive increase from $2.3 trillion in 2017.
The International Peace Institute estimated that counterfeiting in East Africa had an annual market share of KES180 billion [$1.4 billion] in 2017. And the Kenya Anti-Counterfeit Authority (ACA) estimates that one in every five products sold on the Kenyan market is a counterfeit product, presenting a serious threat to health, security, and the economy.
Planned interventions [by the authorities in Kenya] include raids on businesses and individuals suspected of dealing in counterfeits and the cooperation of institutions and authorities with law enforcement agencies.
In Kenya, there has been a decrease in counterfeiting between 2015 and 2021, from 23.86% to 15.24% (according to the ACA).
What are your hopes for ARIPO’s future, both while you are DG and beyond?
My top priority is to ensure that we create and co-create value. I endeavour to deliver a regional IP office that balances the needs of all its stakeholders, both in the current IP landscape and a foreseeable, changed IP environment of the future.
I want to strengthen the ARIPO Legal Framework, including a number of protocols which are not performing as expected, such as the Swakopmund Protocol on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expression of Folklore.
I strongly believe that an efficient, effective, and attractive IP legal regime is pivotal in promoting socio-economic development in the region. Under my leadership, the performance of the protocols will be critically evaluated, and measures will be put in place to promote their uptake.
We will grow our membership through a strategy that promotes and demonstrates the value of the organisation to potential new member states and users of the ARIPO system. Also, that promotes an understanding that the value of the organisation lies in harnessing the potential of its common services: a single filing system complementing integration initiatives.
We will promote IP through awareness campaigns, enhancement of technical and financial support, strengthening partnerships, and establishing a digital transformation strategy. My objective is to continue positioning ARIPO as a driver of creativity and innovation that fosters economic growth and development in Africa for the present and the future.
I also want to see an ARIPO positioned for the fourth and the fifth industrial revolutions. The future is characterised by a high youth population, the convergence of IP norms, and opportunities and challenges posed by new technologies.
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