* Africa patent applications under 1 pct of global total
* Countries struggling with manual registries, old laws
* Microsoft offering free service to list, protect IP
* "Culture of secrecy" means inventors hiding their ideas
By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
JOHANNESBURG, July 17 When Malagasy entrepreneur
Andry Ravololonjatovo came up with the idea of a hi-tech
translation service named after a local bird, the Drongo, he
hesitated about registering the patent.
In many countries in Africa, protection of intellectual
property (IP) is still patchy or undeveloped, and many
innovators are put off by the onerous and expensive affair of
registering their products.
Despite a wave of technological innovation washing over the
continent, many inventors are working in secret, doing without
peer feedback for fear of having their ideas pinched by
They are wary too of weak national court systems that are
often largely ineffectual in enforcing IP rights.
"In the beginning, we thought of just operating without
registering due to the arduous and costly process. In addition,
protection is only guaranteed for 10 years," Drongo's founder
Ravololonjatovo told Reuters.
Named after a black-feathered bird found in Madagascar that
mimics the calls of other birds, Drongo is developing mobile
applications for text translations in international languages
like English and French. Ravololonjatovo hopes to widen that to
software that recognises the oral Malagasy language.
"Thinking big, we anticipate what might happen someday as we
grow globally, so we need some kind of protection,"
Ravololonjatovo said, adding it was precisely this that prompted
him to register with local patent protection authorities.
Not surprisingly, the patchy data available on African
patent and trademark registrations shows a concentration in the
more developed economies, where technology and regulatory and
financial frameworks are more firmly established.
Figures from the World Intellectual Property Organisation
(WIPO) show that in 2013, there were 351 international
applications from South Africa filed through its Patent
Cooperating Treaty (PCT) system.
Morocco had 54 filings, Nigeria and Kenya had seven each.
Africa accounted for about 500 PCT applications last year, less
than 1 percent of more than 205,000 made globally, indicating
patent protection is still embryonic on the fast-growing
"NOT FOR THE UNINITIATED"
For IP lawyers working across Africa, challenges include
infrastructure and systems problems that cause backlogs and
delays when searching for, examining and issuing certificates.
Some countries such as Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy and
oil producer and a favoured foreign investment target, are only
now transforming their manual registries into digital format to
create a timely and accurate online filing system.
Antiquated laws, which can sometimes mean trademarks not
being recognised, are now also being reviewed in most states as
investor interest blossoms for an African continent rising out
of poverty and conflict.
But costs can be an obstacle for African innovators who may
be struggling to raise funds.
For Drongo, its patent protection registration cost $400, a
big amount for the small start-up. But the amount of paperwork
required for the process and the time spent waiting for it to
happen was even more frustrating, Ravololonjatovo said.
Trade mark applications in the more expensive territories
range between $1,200-$1,700 while patents require between $1,400
and $1,900, according to Johannesburg-based law firm ENS, which
represents clients across the continent.
But help is at hand. To encourage start-ups to register and
protect their IP, Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative has
begun a free service to help developers with the process and put
lawyers at their disposal if they need to protect their patents.
Microsoft is experimenting with the programme in Kenya and
hopes to also develop it elsewhere on the continent.
Gaelyn Scott, head of the IP department at ENS, said there
were signs of greater respect being shown for patents in Kenya,
Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Namibia. However, other states like
Ethiopia, Mozambique and Angola were proving much more difficult
when trying to protect inventors' rights.
"The practice of IP in Africa, the filing, maintenance and
enforcement of rights, is not for the uninitiated," she said.
"CULTURE OF SECRECY"
Louis Otieno, a director with the Microsoft 4Afrika
initiative, says tech developers at forums where he speaks are
often reticent about sharing their ideas publicly, fearing they
may be stolen and copied. They pull him aside after his
"There is a culture of secrecy, which is counterproductive
in this day and age in developer work. You should feel confident
that what you are developing is yours and have a way of proving
it's yours," Otieno said.
Although most African countries have laws protecting
inventions and intellectual property on their books, these are
often not tested. There are also only a small number of judges
and lawyers on the vast continent well versed with the sector.
Often, arguments before an African court or registry were
followed by delays in handing down decisions that at times
stretched into years, a huge frustration for plaintiffs.
ENS' Scott said most of the filings registering trademarks
in Africa were by foreigners, who were more familiar with the IP
protection concept and procedures from their own countries.
South Africa's IP office, for example, received 7,444 patent
applications in 2012. Of these, 608 were filed by residents, the
rest were by foreign applicants, according to WIPO statistics.
Otieno said an increase IP protection court cases being
heard in Africa could spur more specialisation and expertise.
His advice to African entrepreneurs?
"You should not hide but tell everybody who cares to listen,
'See what I have created, use it but pay royalties to use it'".
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood)