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.


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