Sierra Leone Telegraph: 7 September 2012
In the news this week, the world’s leading computer and smart phone technology company – Apple, won its legal battle in the US against Samsung for infringement of patent rights, involving its IPad tablet computing technology. Samsung may have to pay Billions of Dollars to Apple in damages.
And in Sierra Leone, members of the country’s parliament too, were talking patents and intellectual property rights. They have passed a Bill, which they all agreed will protect the intellectual property and patents of innovators and inventors.
But given the importance of this issue to the creation of wealth, one has to ask the question: How many of the members of parliament understood the real implications and potential economic opportunities that such a Bill could have for the country’s prosperity?
Universities, research departments of private companies, and research and technological organisations (RTOs) are the bedrock of innovation, new product development, industrial development of, and wealth creation in advanced nations.
Every year, thousands of new inventions are patented and protected by law in industrialised countries, to avoid infringement of intellectual property rights, which could deny and deprive their investors of millions and sometimes billions of dollars in revenue.
Hence the need for strong laws that will guarantee the protection of new ideas, new concepts, new processes, inventions and patents.
During the parliamentary debate of the Patent & Industrial Designs Act 2012, in Freetown last Tuesday, 4th September, 2012, although there was cross-party consensus about the importance of such a law, few MPs – if any, considered the absence of the fundamental drivers and infrastructure for encouraging, nurturing and promoting innovation and invention in the country.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet still struggling to get right the fundamentals of building a civil and progressive society, after ten years of peace – following a brutal civil war.
The country’s public sector budget is highly dependent on foreign aid, which makes up about 40% of its annual revenue.
Standards at the country’s main research universities – Fourah Bay College and Njala University are poor and declining.
Recently, rioting university students took to the streets in protest at the government’s lack of vision and disconcerting attitude towards the education sector in general and students’ welfare in particular.
It seems the government is failing to understand the important role that universities and students have to play in building a prosperous society, based on innovation and global economic competitiveness.
For the third consecutive year, students at Fourah Bay College have been unable to sit their exams due to the unavailability of stationary and desks.
Conditions at the universities are unfit for learning, let alone carrying out cutting edge, blue sky research upon which industrial and economic success depends.
Patents and inventions are not produced out of thin air; they come from hard work through research and entrepreneurialism.
Many in Sierra Leone would no doubt argue, that parliament’s time and the needs of the nation would have been best served, had the members of parliament devoted their efforts to discussing the role of higher education in developing a competitive and prosperous nation – through innovation; and formulate a clear non-partisan plan of action with the necessary budget to achieve this goal.
Sadly, the question that must be asked yet again is how many of the MPs understand how successful nations are built, and are also prepared to sacrifice their personal selfish motives to achieve that goal.
There is something fundamentally wrong with the thought processes of those upon whom, so much power and authority have been vested by the people.
Time and again, the Sierra Leone Telegraph has advocated for the formulation of a cross-party ‘Agenda for Development’ – an Economic Development Plan to which all political parties and stakeholders will sign up, and agree to implement irrespective of which political party has been elected by the people.
Such an Agenda for Development will clearly define and quantify the development goals and objectives that the country need to achieve in the next five to ten years, and the measures needed to achieve them.
A nation’s economic development and social progress is not assessed simply by its infrastructure development – new roads; hectares of land rehabilitation; the resuscitation of old mineral mining sites; nor the symbolic exercise of offering free health care programme to certain vulnerable groups, who in reality are struggling to access and benefit from the programme.
It will be measured by the number of people whose general sense of wellbeing have been improved; the number of people in gainful employment; the number of new and successful businesses that have been established; the number of students with world class university education; the number of pupils leaving school with the best results in the West African sub-region.
But above all, if Sierra Leone truly wants to develop in order to compete with the best in Africa, it has to up its game in developing a skilled and highly educated workforce – a class of skilled workers that are not only functionally literate, but are technologically and scientifically competent.
Of course, cynics would say; how can a nation that cannot feed itself nor provide safe, clean environment for its people to live, work and play without the risk of dying of diseases like cholera and malaria be able to develop a world class skilled workforce.
The answer is simple. Rome was not built in a day and there are countries in the far-east that are now economically prosperous and socially advanced, and most importantly, have been were Sierra Leone is today.
But the difference is that they have had leaders with vision; political and industrial leaders who understood the importance of innovation and competitiveness, built on sound education of their people; leaders who understood the need to develop a skilled workforce that will drive forwards their industrial development programme.
The government of Sierra Leone says that the purpose of the Bill – titled; The Patent and Industrial Designs Act 2012 ‘is an Act aimed at promoting inventors and innovative activities and facilitate the acquisition of technology through the regulation of patent and industrial design and other related matters’.
Fine words, but if the government is not creating appropriate environment and conditions that will encourage innovation – good standards of education, university research and industrial collaboration, new product research and development (R&D) for commercial exploitation, then what good is a law to protect patents that do not exist?
There is no evidence of inventors or potential inventors leaving the country because of the lack of protection of their ideas and intellectual property.
The massive brain drain that Sierra Leone has experienced since the 1970s, which has significantly contributed to impoverishing the country has been due to the lack of career opportunities, nepotism, the decline of standards in society, tribalism and under-investment in basic infrastructures.
When a member of parliament – Alimamy Kargbo said that; “the Bill will serve as a deterrent to duplicators that will intend to imitate the initiative of some other inventors”, he must have had the country’s cassette sellers and musicians in mind, rather than academic and industrial researchers.
Another member of parliament – Nuruh Deen Sankoh told reporters that; “the Bill is nice and a good one that gears towards the protection of the providers…..and give confidence to the outsiders to come to the country to invest in innovative businesses as there is a law now to protect them from imitators towards their products.”
One has to really wince and ask: Is that based on fact or fiction?
How many inventions have been patented by Sierra Leoneans living in Sierra Leone, since the country gained independence in 1961?
Has the absence of a law protecting patents and inventions been the reason why Sierra Leone is so poor today?
Perhaps the only immediate advantage of passing the Bill now, rather than spending parliamentary time in ensuring that the long awaited and promised Freedom of Information Bill is passed, is that Sierra Leone has taken the necessary step to overhaul its patent and intellectual property laws.
The deputy minister of Justice – Arrow Bockarie told parliament that the Bill will protect the rights of inventors and other industrial activities, which have for far too long been tied to the British laws and system of protecting patenting rights.
But without any shadow of doubt, the most sensible and realistic comment to come out of the wells of parliament on Tuesday, was by parliamentarian – Eric Jumu, who said that; “many Bills have been passed into law, but no proper structures have been established for their implementation.”
This is also true of the Patent and Industrial Designs Act 2012.