Monday, May 27, 2013

Africa Innovators will Perish or Patent

By Esther Nakkazi

Twenty year old Christine Nalukwago, a student, is now a celebrated Ugandan innovator, after making deworming pills from local materials and basic technology.

She made the dewormers from a solution of dried pawpaw seeds, sugar, and banana or cassava flour and put it under the sun to dry for a week. Nalukwago acquired the knowledge after a visit to her grandmother, but the fact that dry pawpaw seeds rid children of parasitic worms, was already known to communities in Uganda.

She has since won prizes at the first East Africa regional Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics competition organised by the Forum for African Women Educationists (FAWE), an NGO that empowers girls and women. She was also recently hosted at the BBC Africa science week held at Makerere University in Kampala.

Ideally, Nalukwago, and her teachers would protect this innovation by visiting the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, (URSB) which registers Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) in Uganda. These days it is publish or patent. But they have not.

Intellectual Property (IP) refers to creations of the mind and IPRs protect the interest of creators by giving them property rights over their creations which could include musical, drama and literary works; technical and, scientific innovations; and distinctive signs and marks used in business or Trade Marks.

According to Paul Asiimwe a lawyer specialising in IP law with the Kampala-based Sipi Law Associates, if the dewormers qualified, they would have to be registered under the IP cycle, which involves creation, protection, commercialization and enforcement.

But the innovation would to be of practical use to society, be novel-unknown by an existing body of knowledge or prior art- plus it must have an inventive step, deduced by someone of average knowledge in that technical field and also the subject matter must be ‘patentable’ in law.

While the process of patenting is laborious the world over, its worse here, and could be one of the reasons Uganda has no more than 30 registered patents, according to URSB, although the office has existed as far back as 1948 when Nivea body lotion was registered.

It is the same process regionally, for an inventor to get a patent. They should file a patent application with a title, background and a detailed description of the invention, provide an abstract for it, indicate its technical field, industrial applicability and claims or the scope of desired protection.

The application must be written in clear language that a person of average understanding of the field could use or reproduce the invention; drawings, plans or diagrams should also accompany the description to further clarify the invention.

At the Uganda Registration Services Bureau office, they advise that a professional is engaged by the innovator to write the application, which could be as big as 500 pages and more.
In Uganda, patents last for 15 years, with an option for the inventor to request for a further 5 year extension. Patent protection ends when it expires and it becomes part of the public domain. So the owner at this time has no exclusive rights to the invention.

The whole patent process costs up to $270 until it expires after 15 years. The application fees are Ushs.180, 000 ($70) and Shs.12, 000 ($4.6) for correction of the application. After the patent is granted you pay a one-time fee of shs.300, 000 ($II5) and annual maintenance fees of shs.48, 000 ($18.5) on first anniversary date plus an additional shs.12, 000 ($4.6) for every year the patent is in force.

Although, it is believed that innovations are on the rise in Uganda especially in institutions like Makerere University, the above process and its benefits is known to a few innovators because of low IPR awareness and enforcement.

“People do not know the value of patents or trademarks until they stumble upon it. They get to discover it by accident,” says Asiimwe. On the other hand, education and training in the area of IP is low at higher learning, which has resulted in lack of IP experts in Uganda.
“Our office does not have the capacity to do any examinations. We lack appropriately trained Patent agents and technology licensing practitioners,” said Juliet Nassuna, the director Intellectual Property at URSB but said they are in the process of embarking on training some. Otherwise they rely on Kenyan examiners.

Researchers, academic institutions and SMEs are neither strategizing enough to generate and manage IP rights, so largely, IP issues in Uganda remain driven by foreign firms or foreign interests, says Nanfuka. Now, these crippled with poor science infrastructure, no venture capitalists, a long patent application process, and a weak innovation system just produces few innovations, low technology transfer and adaptation in Uganda.

Dr. Thomas Egwang a molecular biologist and director general of Med Biotech laboratories has just completed work on a novel malaria DNA vaccine construct, which induced cross reactive antibodies in baboons with 100 percent sero-conversion. But he will not patent it.
“Applying for a patent is like writing a business plan. If I was half my age I would but now I do not have that vigour,” said the 60-year old Egwang.

He however, supports the culture of patenting but will opt for publishing other than patent with the hope that in the science world, there is ‘a level playing field and the market is wide’.
“I am planning to publish in good journals to and put my findings in the public domain so that they do not steal it but I am not going into patenting,” said Egwang who had just presented it at a conference in Kampala.

But Nassuna warns that that is one of the dangers, disclosure before filing. “Ugandans should be careful about the way they disclose information about innovations. Many people throw themselves out of the market by disclosure,” she said.

Uganda Registration Services Bureau office is now encouraging Ugandans to embrace the geographical indications law that give mileage to products with unique geographical attributes such as Nile perch, silky cotton, Kafu cassava.

They also advised Nalukwago and her school, Kitante High School, to work with a scientist and use other areas of IP especially Trade Mark in this case, because it is affected by prior art, due to what existed before the dewomers invention.

“But they should also have the resources to scale it up, so that it does not become a white elephant,” advised Nassuna.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Women Participants in Clinical Trials for HIV Vaccines still low

By Esther Nakkazi

On May 18th, each year, the world celebrates World HIV vaccine day. Many clinical trials of HIV/AIDS are happening in the East African region, and year after year thousands of volunteers enroll to participate in the search for an HIV vaccine.

Fulani women: flickr
The volunteers in these trials are great people who should be admired and applauded plus the scientists and funders except, women, who continue to frustrate these efforts by showing up in low numbers; yet we are more vulnerable and bear the bigger burden of the HIV epidemic.

Scientists conclude that low female participation in vaccine clinical trials of HIV/AIDS could produce a vaccine that is not well respected or conclusive on its efficacy among women or one that only elicits a good immune response in men.

In Uganda, and a few other African countries, the situation is frustrating and puzzling. Women seek health care services more than men, yet men are more willing to participate in trials? Why?

Take for instance, the Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP), early capture cohort study, the RV217, which is studying most at risk populations. The study is supposed to help in the diagnosis of HIV before antibodies are formed. Participants are therefore captured at 3 days or at most one month after infection.

It set out to enroll only female commercial sex workers but the numbers were too low so it has been amended to now include male commercial sex workers and Men who have sex with Men (MSM), another most at risk population. But even with the anti-gay environment in Uganda and the strict anti-homosexuality Bill coming up the male response and enrollment in this study has been very good.

The reasons for low women participation are varied; the social structures- women need consent from their husbands or parents; then the requirements of the protocols are also stringent, no breast feeding or pregnancy so they have to use contraceptives throughout, yet most of them are usually in the reproductive age bracket and are sexually active etc.

Most women also have to attend to family issues and have limited free time yet typically it would require at least 20 visits to the vaccine clinic in an 18 month vaccine clinical trial for HIV/AIDS.

At MUWRP, where I am a member of the Community Advisory Board (CAB), scientists say they have almost run out of ideas on how to get women participants. And one thing for sure is that they go out of their way to target and recruit women. Strategies used include mass media, targeting only female institutions of higher learning, female groups etc.

After trying all the tricks under their sleeves, they are now going to do a study on why women do not participate. They have lessons to learn from Tanzania and South Africa where female enrollment is higher than for male.

Currently, another disappointment is the low numbers of women enrolled so far, only 5 out of 42, for the RV262 a phase 1, safety, human clinical trial for an HIV/AIDS vaccine that will use DNA.

The ideal number of females to enroll in a vaccine trial would be a third of the overall total. But in Uganda, typically, when research organisations advertise for volunteer participants in clinical trials for HIV/AIDS, many people turn up in the hope of finding a job. But still even here, the ratio of women to men is 1:6.

Research is done among communities to solve problems but it also benefits a country in terms of technology transfer, jobs, career development for local scientists and in the HIV vaccines case, to wipe out HIV in the world.

If women do not participate in the search for an HIV/AIDS vaccine our problems with HIV will never get solved yet we are more vulnerable!

Esther Nakkazi is a freelance science journalist and a Community Advisory Board member representing the Health Journalists Network in Uganda (HEJNU with the Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Tanzania: An opportunity for regional cross border fibre

By Esther Nakkazi

Tanzania could be one answer to eastern Africa's cross border broadband connectivity problems, with fibre links laid up to strategic border points of the nine countries neighboring it.

But all nine governments have not responded to interconnect at the borders with Tanzania fibre, a problem that is still keeping Internet prices high and may slow development for the region.

"If eastern Africa wants to take Internet traffic down south through Tanzania they can do so," said Dr. Raynold Mfungahema, director of consumer and industry affairs- Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA).

Tanzania fibre links are already at borders points of Sirali, Namanga and Horohoro to serve Kenya, Mutukula to Uganda, Rusumo to Rwanda as well as Manyovu and Kabanga to Burundi.

It is also connected to Malawi through Kasumulo and Tunduma to Zambia plus it has three submarine cables-EASSy, SEACOM and EACC to Seychelles.

"We have pulled fibre to all these border points but all the governments have not connected to our links, which is a challenge. It is only the private sector doing cross border interconnectivity and they are few," said Mfungahema at the Broadband and Satellite communication held in Kampala recently.

The few private sector companies that have connected across border lines particularly, MTN interconnecting Rwanda to Burundi and Uganda to Kenya and Rwanda are monopolies keeping the costs real high.

In Uganda, the private sector, MTN and Uganda Telecom have between them fibre laid from border to border, to Malaba linking up with Telkom Kenya to Nairobi and Mombasa; and to Katuna border to link to Rwanda.

The private sector, interconnects the region under a joint regional effort, the East African Backhaul System (EABS) which is meant to link all the five East African Community Countries and involves about 30 operators in Eastern and Southern Africa.

However, connecting across borders also has its challenges; bureaucracy for rights of way, immigration, different regulation regimes and security concerns as data is moving between governments.

"We need more operators to build fibre across borders to stop monopolies that exist in interconnection between borders," said Michuki Mwangi of Internet Society. The cost of cross border connections for the east African region remains exorbitant; for instance, it is cheaper to buy broadband from London to Nairobi than from to Nairobi to Kampala.

Most government officials and regulators attending the conference on Broadband and satellite communication organized by the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), International Telecommunications Organisations (ITSO) and the East African Communications Organisation (EACO) said they hope to interconnect across borders through their national data transmission projects.

" We shall connect to Tanzania through Mutukula in phase III of the National data transmission project in the next financial year," said Mr. James Saaka, the director National Internet Transmission (NITA-U).

The Uganda government has completed phase I and II of its national data transmission project and according to Ssaka they have handed over infrastructure of 2,000 kms to a private company, now managing it.

Kenya has ten times as much as Uganda's laid broadband with 20,000 kms owned by both the government and the private sector. Meanwhile, Tanzania has 10,000 kms of fibre laid under the government national data project.

In order to have cheap Internet, the region could unite and also create public-private partnerships to interconnect at the borders. "It is important that we collect our traffic as a region and buy traffic cheaply, plus keep the local traffic local," advised Dr. Mfungahema.

The NEPAD e-Africa programme and African Union have a joint project to identify cross border broadband linkages. Dr. Edmund Katiti of NEPAD e-Africa programme assured all broadband providers who have interest in connecting across borders that they can get soft loans from NEPAD or the African Union.

"There should be complementation as soon as possible between government and the private sector,” Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, the Minister of ICT in Uganda. "If we handle things together and move as a region, we shall move faster."