Date: 27 June 2022By

The Role of Intellectual Property in the Implementation of Sustainable Innovation in the Life Sciences – An African Perspective

Challenges Create Room for Innovation

Doing business on the African continent has risks, but also presents exciting opportunities. There are many challenges that African countries, like many other developing and least developed countries face. These include poverty, a high disease burden, and a general lack of infrastructure in many places, such as public services, roads, hospitals, schools, and internet connectivity. However, wherever there are challenges, there is room for innovation, and this is certainly true on the African continent.

In fact, what is often observed is the leap-frogging of African innovation compared with traditional Western technologies, where advantages of newer solutions have been applied to solve challenges in the African context, one such example being the widespread and rapid adoption of digital health solutions of different kinds across the continent. Sustainable innovation and disruptive innovation are concepts that provide great opportunities on the African continent.

African Innovation

What is Sustainable Innovation?

In essence, sustainable innovation is where businesses consider and implement organizational and technological innovations that provide benefits to the environment or society. Sustainable innovation allows for the responsible and sustainable use of natural resources, including innovative recycling or up-cycling of waste products. Inputs used by the business are reduced, processes are made more efficient, products improved, and waste products are reduced or reused, resulting in both costs-saving and the generation of additional revenues.

Companies that are built on or are able to adapt early to a sustainable business model often have a competitive advantage over companies that fail to adapt to a sustainable business model. As illustrated in the examples below, the proven appetite of African businesses to quickly grasp and utilize innovative sustainable business processes and technologies to solve some of the challenges that the continent faces, can lead to improved access to healthcare and education, a reduction in poverty and a better quality of life on the continent.

Along with any type of innovation comes the generation of intellectual property (IP). S&P 500 Market value shows that since 2020, around 90% of the market value of the companies assessed sit within its intellectual assets. This includes all types of intellectual assets, from those that are registerable such as patents, designs, trademarks and plant breeders’ rights, to copyright and trade secrets and the more intangible intellectual assets such as goodwill and know-how. Sustainable innovation has been shown to lead to increased job creation in both developed and developing world companies, as well as more and greater quality innovation, including an increase in the number of patents filed by companies effecting sustainable innovation.

Research Innovation

Sustainable Innovation in Africa

Some examples of exciting sustainable, and potentially disruptive, innovation in Africa that are improving the lives of Africans, whilst benefiting the environment include:

Mzansi Meat produces cell culture cultivated meat products making production less costly and more environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Cape Bio Pharms is a disruptive technology for production of recombinant proteins, including reagent, diagnostic and potentially therapeutic proteins in plants, doing it “cheaper, better, faster”.

Mloumas is a web and mobile service for farmers to manage purchase and sale of agricultural products through access to market information in real time.

Abalobi’s Ecosystem provides services linking fishers and buyers or restaurants for a transition towards ecological, economic and social sustainability.

Digital Health Platform Innovations in particular have shown rapid growth in Africa, and have been applied to provision of remote health care services such as telemedicine services, patient and public health data storage, protection, management and analysis, and eLearning for health workers. Some successful applications of digital health technology in Africa include treatment of non-communicable diseases, immunization management and logistics, HIV/AIDS treatment and management, digital-health enabled diagnostics, and supply chain management for essential medicines and the like. Digital ultra sound, electrocardiograph (ECG) and rapid diagnostic kit readers that are integrated into cloud-based smart reader systems are being used in Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, The Gambia, Uganda, Malawi and South Africa.

Zipline developed the use of drones to deliver blood and essential medicines in Rwanda and Tanzania.

MamaOpe’s, meaning “mothers’ hope”, is a biomedical smart jacket, which can diagnose pneumonia four times faster and more accurately than a doctor.

The Challenges Related to IP and African Innovation

In the past, there has been an imbalance in the collaborative relationships between Western funders of research and African researchers, where often times, there was very little technological or skills transfer between the funders and the African researchers. This is evidenced by the IP landscape where, despite the high prevalence of HIV, TB and malaria in Africa, less than 0.2% of patents relating to these infectious diseases are owned by African entities. Africa performs the poorest out of its BRICs neighbors for patent filing in general, with only 0.2% of the patents globally being African in origin.

Some of the issues directly related to IP that have been highlighted on the African continent include that there are inadequate intellectual property filing, prosecution and enforcement frameworks, there is a high cost associated with IP filing to grant and maintenance, and a lack of cohesive systems that provide for the support (including financial) of the protection of IP rights and facilitation of local commercialization. These are all aspects that need to be addressed for the successful reliance on IP protection for sustainable innovations created in Africa.

Given the challenges relating to IP legislation, it seems that many of the innovations being developed on the African continent rely on non-statutory forms of IP protection, such as trade secret protection. It is important to consider that when relying on this type of IP there are inherent risks, including that a third party might independently develop a similar technology to compete with your business and you would not be able to stop them from doing so. In addition, it can be very difficult to enforce your rights in this type of IP against someone who obtains your secret IP without your authorization and then uses it. It is imperative that a business is proactive about management and protection of trade secrets for there to be any chance of successful enforcement.

Collaboration is the Key

Collaboration has been identified as a key facilitator of sustainable innovation, and the protection and leveraging of IP rights is a valuable tool for attracting collaborative partners, and managing the collaborative relationship.

African innovators need to re-consider the importance of protecting their innovations through registered forms of IP, particularly in the form of patent filings, and mechanisms need to be improved by governments and NGOs to support and encourage IP filing and commercialization for the benefit of sustainable innovation across the continent.