INTERVIEW: AFRIPI boss lays out Zim game plan

0
548
Dennis Scheirs

INTELLECTUAL property rights experts met in Harare last week to discuss global developments in the field. After the conference, NewsDay (ND) Business reporter Freeman Makopa caught up with Africa Intellectual Property Rights and Innovation in Africa (AfrIPI)’s Zimbabwe team leader Dennis Scheirs (DS) to understand how the engagements progressed.

ND: What is the AfrIPI project?

DS: AfrIPI is the short form of the Intellectual Property Rights and Innovation in Africa project. In fact, AfrIPI is a pan-African project funded and directed by the European Union, co-funded and implemented by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO). It has a duration of five years, starting from February 2020. I will refer to the phrase “intellectual property” merely as IP.

ND: What is the objective of AfrIPI?

DS: The objective of AfrIPI is to boost the African economy and foster trade between Europe and Africa. This project gives support to African countries in enhancing the IP system for the benefit of African businesses. It supports the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

ND: What are your priorities and objectives as the AfrIPI team leader?

DS: The main priorities are to have as many impactful activities on African countries as possible to enhance the IP systems in the different countries. But it is not only a matter of getting to the achievements. More importantly it is about working together with our African partners, side by side and building the IP landscape.

We will establish long-lasting work relations that will allow both continents to co-operate in full energy, with compatible IP systems so that trade between the continents is easy and both economies will profit from that.

On a personal note this project has been an incredible opportunity to live in Harare, to meet wonderful people with such amazing energy. It has been an eye-opener in many ways, and I feel so privileged to have the chance to connect with my brothers and sisters from this side of the world. Everyone has been so welcoming and open, it is really heart-warming.

ND: You talked about Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). What are they, and why are they important for Africa?

DS: IP rights refer to a wide range of assets, such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, plant varieties or geographical indications. From a company brand to furniture design, all these products and creations can be protected. Each intellectual property right has its own characteristics and type of protection that it confers.

Therefore, it is very important for innovators and businesses to identify what potential intellectual property assets they own and know how best to protect them, as often times it is their most valuable asset.

A strong intellectual property environment will boost the participation of African countries in the world’s economy. It will also stimulate innovation and competitiveness in the private sector. Therefore, sound national IP rights systems are the backbone of innovative countries, thus favouring economic growth.

ND: Why are you stationed in Harare?

DS: Good question. In fact, only a part of the AfrIPI team is stationed in Harare. The other team members are based in Yaounde (Cameroon), Accra (Ghana) and Alicante (Spain).

In Harare, we are here because it is where the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) secretariat is situated. In Yaounde, it is where the Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI) is situated.

These two are the African regional IP organisations. Both organisations cover each around 20 African countries, which is why they are our most important partners.

ND: Besides ARIPO and OAPI, do you have other partners in Africa?

DS: Yes, we do. We collaborate with the African Union Commission, and the African ministries related to IP protection and enforcement.

ND: What is the key focus area that, as AfrIPI, you help your partners with?

DS: AfrIPI has four main components. The first component is the promotion of international IP frameworks and the IP Chapter negotiations of AfCFTA agreement.

We have one of our long-term experts based in Accra to give full-time support to the African Union secretariat in conducting these negotiations. The second component is about capacity building. This component mainly focuses on IT tools that can bring efficiency gains and increased transparency and examination guidelines that bring increased quality decisions. The third component is the awareness of IP for African SMEs.

Only a few African SMEs are aware of the advantages that IP can bring to them and how it can make their businesses stronger. The fourth component is dedicated to the geographical indications. An example of this is the French champaigne or the Cameroonian Penja Pepper or the goat meat Cabrito de Tete in Mozambique.

They are local products that obtain their characteristics by being produced in a specific geographical area and can, therefore, really boost the local economy when properly exploited and protected.

ND: What are your recent achievements that have made an impact in Africa?

DS: On March 17, 2022, the European Commission registered Cameroon’s “Poivre de Penja” as the first protected geographical indication from the African Intellectual Property Organisation (OAPI) region and the second from Africa.

This announcement came at the end of a 17-month application process during which AfrIPI, in co-operation with OAPI, supported the Poivre de Penja Producers Association in fulfilling the conditions required to obtain European recognition.

In February, AfrIPI organised a high-level workshop in Abuja, Nigeria with a wide variety of governmental and private policymakers. At this workshop, a new draft legislation for Nigeria geographical indications was presented and discussed. When this new legislation comes into force, it will enable local economies in Nigeria to prosper.

ND: You mentioned geographical indications, what are they?

DS: Oh yes, a geographical indication, commonly known as GI, is a distinctive sign used to identify a product whose quality, reputation or other such characteristics relate to its geographical origin. Some globally renowned GIs are Champagne (France), Feta Cheese (Greece), Thai Silk, Penja Pepper (Cameroon).

You are only entitled to use a geographical indication if your product actually comes from the protected region. So, for example, if you produce sparkling wine in Zimbabwe, you are not allowed to call it champagne.

So the GI certificate gives legal ground to GI producers to protect the name and ultimately helps to guarantee that local value creation and addition can be sustained. It improves the investment potential of regions and encourages fair distribution of value along the supply chain, especially for primary producers.

Geographical indications are important to agricultural development and should be promoted in Africa. In Zimbabwe, a potential GI is Kariba bream, as the quality of the fish is guaranteed by its origin from the lake.

ND: Zimbabwe recently hosted a workshop on designs and utility models. What was the objective of this workshop and can you explain the importance of these tools to businesses?

DS: Yes, in the ARIPO region, two of the lesser-known and less used intellectual property rights are industrial designs and utility models. Even though these rights are less known and less used, they can be extremely useful for smaller businesses, the SMEs.

The aim of industrial designs is to protect the visual appearance of a product. A design is an original creation with a uniqueness that may result from its shape, lines, outline, configuration, colour, texture or material. Although usually referred to as an “industrial” design, a design is not necessarily used in industry. The term “industrial” refers to the fact that designs are mass-produced through industrial means.

The utility models can be a viable, relatively inexpensive, and easier option for the protection of innovations because, unlike patents, utility models require fewer technical requirements and less registration and maintenance fees. A utility model must be new and useful. Most utility models consist of technical improvements to products or processes that provide a practical use or new effects, thus making the invention useful and marketable.

ND: Do you help universities educate students in Africa about IP?

DS: Yes, as AfrIPI, we work with our regional partners, ARIPO and OAPI, in providing expert support to the Master in Intellectual Property programmes they facilitate in conjunction with the World Intellectual Property Office.

We have experts from the European Union Intellectual Property Office who deliver lectures for the programme. They give the lectures at Africa University in Zimbabwe, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

ND: How do intellectual property rights link with innovation in Africa?

DS: Innovation and creativity are the core drivers of sustainable economic development. Intellectual property rights are the key tools for generating value from intangible assets. A strong enabling environment for IP creation, protection, administration and enforcement will boost the participation of African countries in the world economy and stimulate innovation and competitiveness of the private sector.

ND: What is Helpdesk?

DS: The Africa IP SME Helpdesk provides valuable statistics and information which could be helpful for small and medium enterprises on intellectual property rights.

Furthermore, the Helpdesk offers free information, expert advice, and support services to the European Union’s SMEs with existing or potential business interests in Africa. It equips the SMEs with support in protecting and enforcing their intellectual property rights in or relating to Africa.

ND: When and what are your following activities?

DS: We have several activities lined up in the coming months. You can visit our website, www.afripi.org, for information about the annual work plan activities we will be hosting across Africa. Some activities are virtual and open to everyone.

  • Follow us on Freeman @freemanmakopa