From the African Regional Intellectual Property Office in Harare, Zimbabwe, this video includes a slideshow depicting the patent drafting workshop with participants from across Africa and a clip of my introduction of the first claim-drafting exercise. More information about my participation in these workshops as an instructor for the World Intellectual Property Organization is provided on the WIPO-Africa page, and I will keep the video on the mxlegal home page for a while. Teaching patent drafting in Africa is an extraordinary experience, and I hope you enjoy the video.
Sorry that this blog has remained quiet for the past couple weeks--I have been in Africa.
Most American (or European, Japanese, Chinese, etc.) patent attorneys have never filed in Africa, though they should keep an eye on the continent, as patent filings are increasing at the African Regional Intellectual Property Office (ARIPO), even through the recession, while filings in America and in other developed markets have dropped.
Without many patent agents in ARIPO member states (e.g., there are just four patent agents in Zimbabwe), a critical need exists for patent drafters who can help to monetize innovation from African research centers, universities and other institutions. This past year, about 500 patent applications were filed at ARIPO (one of two regional patent organizaions along with French-speaking OAPI), though the overwhelming majority of those applications were filed by applicants from non-member countries, particularly from the United States and particularly directed to, for example, pharmaceuticals.
In the annual joint effort of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and ARIPO to build patent-drafting capacity in Africa, I again participated this past week as a patent-drafting instructor. After traveling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last year, this year we returned to the ARIPO headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe with a new group of participants, this time from the following countries: Burundi, Ghana, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Seychelles, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. The program included a series of presentations discussing patents and patent-drafting concepts, as well as a series of practical patent claim-drafting exercises. Again, the students were highly committed and made remarkable progress in picking up concepts and skillfully employing claim drafting techniques in just one week.
Again, it was refreshing to meet high-ranking government officials, including the chairwoman of the council of ministers from Lesotho, who fully recognize that a strong intellectual property system is critical to investment and that skilled patent drafting is a critical need in that regard. African leaders recognize that a strong patent system is often needed to introduce new products to a country both from within as well as from outside the country's borders, as many companies will be afraid to enter a market if their innovations cannot be protected. I say "refreshing" because so many anti-patent interest groups in America today have forgotten or refuse to acknowledge this truth.
Patenting at ARIPO can cover 15 member states across Africa, and rules and procedures are governed by the Harare Protocol. As with European patents, ARIPO patents must be validated after issuance in the member states in which protection is sought. Patent rules in Africa mostly resemble European practice (e.g., using the problem-solution approach to evaluate the "inventive step" requirement), though ARIPO also employs some American concepts, such as the "best mode" requirement and the use of a "grace period" for filing after some disclosures (though ARIPO offers only a six-month grace period, rather than the one-year grace period foundin the US, and only for disclosures at officially recognized exhibitions).
The Zimbabwean economy has stabilized--petrol stations have reopened, putting cars back on the road (not necessarily a good thing in my view); and supermarket shelves are once again stocked. Introduction of the US dollar as the official currency earlier this year, after Zim $100,000,000,000,000 (hundred trillion) notes were retired, appears to be the best thing to happen to the Zimbabwean economy in years.
Nevertheless, Morgan Tsvangarai and the MDC announced a boycott of the Zimbabwean "unity government" in combination with Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF party (Zanu PF headquarters shown at center in view of city from our hotel, above) due to the criminal prosecution of their appointed cabinet minister of agriculture over the weekend that we were there, which raised questions as to how long the unity government will hold, though there was no immediate apparent impact on safety or city functions.
Occasionally, you come across a story that makes your day and inspires you. The construction of power-generating windmills by Malawi's self-taught William Kamkwamba (starting at the age of 14) is beyond inspiring. I don't think you'll regret for a moment watching this six-minute clip:
This young innovator with little education, little money and almost no tools powers his family's home with renewable energy and makes them energy-independent. Meanwhile, in America, with all our resources and with the benefits being clearly evident for decades, we still cannot muster the discipline and will to make the sacrifices needed to make ourselves energy independent.
Ultimately, though, what attracts me most to this story is that it reminds me of what I love about Africa. While William's talents are indeed exceptional, this remarkably resourceful, ambitious, eager-to-learn and determined drive to improve one's lot and to better one's community is found all over the continent. Indeed, I have met at least one other windmill innovator in my travels (an inventor in Ethiopia). In Wiliam's case, "[a] windmill meant more than just power," he wrote, "it was freedom." Many Africans are remarkably resourceful in solving problems with limited resources. This is the Africa that I think gets far too little attention in the west. We are far more likely to see reports of suffering and famine, though that is a very small part of what Africa is about.
With the WIPO/ARIPO patent-drafting training program, we help to build a core group of trained patent professionals who can provide a platform to better enable African innovation to compete in world markets. Though it will be Africans such as William who will lead Africa as the next great frontier of development (post-Asia). If you have not heard that forecast before, recognize now that you are likely see remarkable changes and development in Africa in the next couple decades. In Africa today, you will find both hope and despair, though I find the sense of hope (no matter the suffering) to be the more powerful and resilient force.
Read more about William at African Dynamo on the good.is/blogs and hear more from him at this presentation from the TEDGlobal Conference:
Thanks to my friends at EGG-Energy in Tanzania/Cambridge for introducing me to this remarkable story.
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.
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.
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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