Exploring knowledge and innovation in Africa

By Nagham El Houssamy

‘Africa is not a uniform continent; it is rich in diversity.’ This pivotal statement was always on my mind while working with the Open African Innovation Research and Training Project (Open A.I.R.). Since 2011, Open A.I.R. has surveyed different intellectual property (IP) systems that govern knowledge production in Africa and explored how they can be utilized for open innovation and collaborative creativity.

With 53 countries, why does the world’s second largest continent lag behind in metrics associated with knowledge and innovation? Simply put, the inadequacy lies in the tools used to assess and measure knowledge and innovation coming out of Africa. Knowledge and innovation coming out of Africa, most of which are informal in nature, escape the mainstream avenues through which measurement takes place. This is further explored in Open A.I.R.’s two publications Innovation and Intellectual Property: Collaborative Dynamics in Africa and Knowledge and Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future.

The first publication is a compilation of 14 case studies across nine African countries giving insights to the linkages between innovation and IP in different settings. Some of the themes explored in the case studies include the relationships between innovation, entrepreneurship and knowledge management in the informal economy, geographical indication trademarks as a branding tool according to products’ place of origin, and traditional knowledge and collaborative innovation. Additionally, the publication includes two case studies from Egypt. One case study surveyed the Egyptian independent music scene and the distribution and marketing of copyrighted creative works via online open licensing and “freemium” models, while the other examined patenting and innovation in the biofuel technology sector in Egypt.

In parallel to these insights, the foresight scenario publication includes three distinct yet interrelated plausible futures for IP in Africa, keeping in mind the diversity of the continent. I will explore how to maneuverer the knowledge maze in these three scenarios: “Wireless Engagement,” “Informal- the New Normal,” and “Sincerely Africa”.

“Wireless Engagement” speaks to the countries and communities in Africa where formal enterprises exist, interrelated with the global service economy. In this scenario, knowledge and innovation are formalized and protected, whether via copyrights, patents, trademarks or industrial designs, thereby creating an environment that is attractive to foreign investors. One existing example of such an environment is Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah” situated in Nairobi, which has flourished as a result of the success of Kenya’s mobile phone money transfers. Thus, “Wireless Engagement” witnesses a spur of measurable African innovation and economic growth. But, as foreign influence and globalization become very apparent on the continent, they are also evidenced by the loss of local traditions and conformity with Western lifestyle. Meanwhile, those who are geographically remote from the hubs of modernization and thus are unable to adapt to the fast pace of technology will be marginalized. Out of the three Open A.I.R. scenarios, “Wireless Engagement” would most favorably place Africa is the global rankings for knowledge and innovation. This is the scenario with the least walls and hidden avenues to the global knowledge arena, where most knowledge and innovation conform to the formalized understanding of IP.

In a parallel world, “Informal- the New Normal” is a futuristic scenario characterized by informal knowledge governance in Africa, with innovations of necessity dominating. In this world, improvisational, small-scale businesses rely on informal IP mechanisms such as trust, interpersonal networks, customer loyalty and first-mover advantage. The formal economy in this case functions more as a support structure to the dominant informal economy. Relationships play a key role in this scenario, and those who are unable to establish local ties will be sidelined. In a case study from Uganda, Dick Kawooya found that informal automotive artisans were developing innovations tailored to address local problems, relying on a system of apprenticeship and mentoring. As in the world of “Informal- the New Normal,” the informal sector innovation in Uganda’s ‘Gatsby Garage’ is hidden in unexplored avenues and behind walls and thus unaccounted for in global metrics.

“Sincerely Africa” narrates the story of those African communities and countries that have retained their traditional practices and livelihoods, opting to remain disparate from the globalized world order. In one of Open A.I.R.’s meetings, I suggested “Sincerely Africa” as the title for this scenario. In my view, the phrase “Sincerely Africa” is a closing line of a letter to the rest of the world, celebrating the complexity and diversity of the continent and shunning those who wish to change it and influence its cultural traditions. In this scenario, African innovation takes the form of traditional knowledge (TK) and inter-generational cultural practices. “Sincerely Africa’s” IP is mainly culturally grounded as a preservation mechanism for sustainable resource management and to safeguard against the misuse of their TK. Community roots and shared identities bind societies in this world. Collaborative mechanisms of IP are in line with the strong familial and community ties. A glimpse of the world of “Sincerely Africa” can be found in South Africa’s Kukula traditional health practitioners, examined by Gino Cocchairo, Johan Lorenzen, Bernard Maister, and Bretta Rutert. These healers have developed an associated bio-cultural community protocol to govern the use of their knowledge. For outsiders, TK represents a secret avenue behind many walls. Research undertaken by Open A.I.R. aims to tear down these walls and explore IP approaches that strike a balance between the protection of innovative ideas with information-sharing and open access to knowledge.

Given the diversity of Africa, more than one of these Open A.I.R. scenarios could exist in the same setting at the same time. In fact, elements of each of these scenarios already coexist in many African nations. The importance of these scenarios is in highlighting the hidden avenues of knowledge and innovation in Africa. By shedding light on what the future could hold, the scenarios aim to guide policy makers to make informed decisions about knowledge and innovation policies that reflect the realities of Africa.

There is a scarcity in research on Africa done by scholars, academics, and practitioners from the continent. In an effort to address this, Open A.I.R. has created a growing network that has brought together more than 36 researchers from 14 African countries to examine access to knowledge for open innovation. It is my belief that although underlined by common threads, research like the one conducted under the Open A.I.R. umbrella, should always have a contextual basis. Africa is not a country, and research originating from the continent should always focus on exploring Africa’s diversity and uniqueness.

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One thought on “Exploring knowledge and innovation in Africa

  1. Pingback: Why we need to reconsider how knowledge and innovation are measured |

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