The signing into law of the America Invents Act by President Barrack Obama has serious implications for Africa. The law awards patents to the first person to file a patent application on an invention instead of the first person to make the invention.
Patent issues are controversial in Africa. This year, Kenya’s Endorois Community sued Leicester University for colluding with Lake Bogoria’s management to harvest and patent fabric bleaching enzymes in the name of establishing the cause of flamingo deaths in Lake Bogoria. Tanzanians were shocked to discover that a modified plant from Usambara Mountain Range, impatiens usambarensis (Trailing Busy Lizzie) was fetching millions of dollars to Swiss and British firms while Tanzanians languished in poverty. Two plant species, Pelargonium sidoides and Pelargonium reniforme, endemic to South Africa and Lesotho, were subject to ‘bio-piracy’ by a German pharmaceutical company, Schwabe Pharmaceuticals that used them to produce a remedy for respiratory tract infections.
Africa finds itself in a difficult situation as a net transfer of resources from the South to the North. The continent is forced to pay royalties and fees to the North to acquire technologies in the form of “technological rent.” Transnational corporations (TNCs) benefit from this rent, thanks to the technological advantage they enjoy. Further, 95% of all research and development takes place in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Highly industrialized countries hold 97% of patents while TNCs hold 90% of all technology and invention patents. The TNCs have always had the upper hand since they have enough lobbying clout, including the capacity to buy the scientific communities in their countries and abroad, manipulate global media and use their governments to pass legislations that have effect beyond their national jurisdictions.
America Invents Act may partly have been introduced to reverse the current economic downturn in the US resulting from a society whose productivity and innovation curve is dipping hence joblessness and poor service provision. While this might impact negatively on African countries that are yet to put their property rights regimes in order, the US government has demonstrated that accountability to its people demands that it goes to great lengths to ensure that its people are secure.
African countries must set their property rights regimes in order; identify prevailing opportunities to be patented and invest in research and technology. In addition, they ought to borrow a leaf from the US and be accountable and sensitive to their electorate. This will put an end to the episodes of civil strife, famine, disease and illiteracy among others.
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