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Robert J. Sayre
Robert J. Sayre
Cambridge, MA,
United States

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Innovation everywhere - Africa and the developing world

  
  
  
  

by Robert J. Sayre

Great Zimbabwe

WIPO/ARIPO instructors (Bob at left) and students from across Africa at Great Zimbabwe, near Masvingo, Zimbabwe (September 8, 2007).

"Zimbabwe" means stone house in the language of the Shona people. "Great Zimbabwe" now refers to the ruins of a great civilzation a couple hours from Harare with extraordinary dry stone constructions (i.e., formed of carved stone blocks and constructed without mortar). The earliest of these structures were believed to have been built around the year 1100, and the site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As colonial Rhodesia, the government would not accept that these remarkable structures were built by Africans, though it now appears clear that they were, in fact, built by remarkably innovative and sophisticated craftsmen who were ancient natives of what is now the country of Zimbabwe. Even today, these structures are a marvel of engineering; and needless to say, they were remarkably innovative 900 years ago.

Great Zimbabwe - conical tower

I was reminded of these impressions while recently reading Investment Biker by Jim Rogers. At one point, he reflected on a recognition that people from every society across the globe have achieved (and hold the potential for) highly advanced civilizations.

What struck me was the universal genius of man. I was reared to think that the glories of the Hebrews, the Greeks, and the Romans were the heights of ancient man's accomplishments. But this trip was opening my eyes. In Carthage, in Zimbabwe, in Xi'an, in the Sahara, and in Siberia--here in Tiahuanaco, Lake Titicaca, Suzdal, Istanbul, and Samarkand--I found ancient glory after ancient glory.

Id. at 340. I focus here on Great Zimbabwe simply because it is the only site among these that I have visited. Great Zimbabwe certainly does not fit the stereotype of "primitive" early Africans; and it made a strong impression on me as well--truly, we are all capable of greatness in every corner of the globe.

As we now enter a "flat world," opportunity for innovative contribution further opens up to all. My trip to Zimbabwe was on behalf of the World Intellectual Property Organization and the African Regional Intellectual Property Office to train Africans to draft patent applications. Recognizing that researchers at laboratories, universitites and other institutions across Africa continue to innovate and invent, a bottleneck to bringing these innovations to world markets in many developing regions is a scarcity of patent professionals to secure protection for these innovations; and our objective was to help build that capacity.

In short, opportunities now exist for unleashing this potential, and patents can play a key role in exporting innovations from developing regions and bringing them to market. Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to capitalize on innovation everywhere.

SIRDC

At the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre in Harare, a biologist, above, explains his work in developing a drought-resistant variety of maize (corn). He and his colleagues are unphased by the dark during this power outage. Absent a reliable electrical grid, one of the most critical pieces of equipment in the lab is an uninterruptable power supply, so his innovative work determinatively carries on no matter the adversity.

For more examples of current innovation taking place in Africa, I highly recommend the recently launched blog from EGG-Energy from on the ground in Tanzania where they are working to more efficiently deliver electric power to the masses.

And if you are looking to secure global patent protection, I invite you to give me a call and I wil be happy to share more thoughts and explore whether I can help.

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