It’s time to demystify Intellectual Property in Kenyan innovation

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With a relatively stable macroeconomic environment, sustained investor confidence, and a fast-expanding services sector, Kenya has emerged as one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and the largest in the East African region by way of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). To maintain its lead, the Kenyan government is looking to technology and innovation as a strategic driver of new business development, job creation, and socio-economic growth. Considered one of Africa’s ‘Big Four’ innovation ecosystems, Kenya has made good progress in this regard, registering 250% growth year-on-year between 2020 – 2021 in terms of startup funding raised.

However, to maximise the impact potential of startups and innovative entrepreneurs, Kenya requires a coherent and thriving Intellectual Property (IP) regime – which it currently lacks.

As a working definition, IP refers to the set of legal rights that protect creative and innovative works. In Kenya, IP rights are protected by the Kenyan Industrial Property Act (KIPA), which establishes the Kenyan Industrial Property Institute (KIPI) as the national agency responsible for the registration, administration and enforcement of IP. In doing so, KIPA and KIPI aim to support innovation and creativity by allowing creators and owners to control how their works are used and to receive financial rewards for their creations.

At a national level, IP has come a long way in the political arena, with the 2010 Constitution of Kenya granting it constitutional status and making it on-par with policies around the world. Yet, while the Kenyan IP regime may meet international standards, it remains a complex and controversial issue in Kenya, which – according to business owners at the coalface of Kenyan innovation – is leading to a net loss in innovation.

This was revealed during a series of roundtable discussions hosted in partnership between the Association of Countrywide Innovation Hubs (ACIH) and Global Alliance Africa, a project of Innovate UK KTN that drives knowledge transfer and collaboration that foster long-lasting, strategic partnerships between Kenya and the UK.

Among the most pressing issues in Kenyan IP is the lack of awareness: Many people in Kenya, including small business owners, entrepreneurs and creators may not be aware of their rights or how to protect them under current IP laws. For those that are aware, the costs of registering and protecting IP rights in Kenya is a barrier for many small businesses and entrepreneurs, with many lacking the resources needed to invest in the necessary legal fees and procedures. For those innovators with the knowledge and resources to protect their IP, another challenge comes in the form of KIPI itself – the agency responsible for administering and enforcing IP rights in Kenya – which has limited resources and is unable to effectively address all IP-related issues. Thus, offenders often face little to no consequence for contravening IP laws, which further discourages innovation and investment into IP-based industries.

To overcome these challenges, there are several next steps that Kenyan stakeholders should consider:

First, we need to encourage and make it easier for innovators to protect their work through trademarks, patents and copyrights. This begins with connecting idea holders to the various organisations in Kenya that offer funding, training, and networking support, as well as legal assistance. Doing so takes us a step towards ensuring that their creative works are recognised and valued, and that they can benefit from their innovations.

Secondly, we need to help innovators to explore licensing and partnership opportunities, whereby Kenyan innovators can collaborate with other companies or organisations to develop and commercialise their products and services, and in doing so, help to bring their ideas to market. Collaborating with other innovators, researchers, and industry experts can also help to create a supportive ecosystem for innovation and can include sharing knowledge, resources, and expertise and working together on joint projects or initiatives.

Lastly, we need to catalyse engagement between innovators, stakeholders and policymakers in Kenyan IP. In doing so, the ecosystem will have a channel in which to advocate for reforms and improvements to the IP legal framework that can help to support innovation and creativity.

It is only by collaborating with others, that we can begin to effectively address IP-related challenges in Kenya and align our efforts to increase awareness and education, strengthen enforcement and legal frameworks, and provide more resources and support to those seeking to protect their rights.

Written by Sheilah Birgen, Country Lead for Kenya at Innovate UK KTN Global Alliance Africa