7 April 2014

Kenya: Secrecy Among Kenyan Firms May Be Impeding Innovation

Geneva — Firms in Kenya are using secrecy instead of patents to protect their valuable ideas and innovations, according to preliminary results from a World Bank study, and this is hampering collaboration and creativity in the country.

The results were presented last month (19-21 March) at a meeting of innovation experts hosted by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Switzerland.

Pedro Mendi, a researcher in innovation economics at the University of Navarra in Spain, told the meeting that his preliminary results showed that Kenyan firms "very rarely" use intellectual property (IP) law to protect their ideas, and that patents were "almost non-existent".

"The effect of these trade secrets is that you very rarely collaborate," said Mendi. "So the upshot is that firms don't talk much to universities - they're very inward looking."

This means that collaborative research between firms and universities is hampered, he said.

For the study, Mendi surveyed 310 firms in Kenya. He used the 'community innovation survey' that has been used for several decades as a standard way to measure innovation in Europe.

But because such surveys can be unreliable in a developing world context, he tweaked the methodology by filling in the questionnaires after conducting interviews with the firms. He also added questions to draw out certain themes. For example, he asked what percentage of employees had a degree as well as about the education level of the firms' directors.

His results confirmed many of the findings of Xiaolan Fu, a researcher at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, who recently conducted a pilot study of innovation in Ghana. Like Fu, Mendi considered an activity 'innovative' if it was new to the firm, rather than a totally new idea. Using this measure he found, as Fu had, that innovation was flourishing in the nation under study.

Yet this promising initial picture masked lots of complexity. For instance, Mendi tells SciDev.Net, there was uncertainty over the "quality" of these innovations. His survey asked about innovation activities, but it was hard to quantify how novel an innovation was, he says.

"We really need to work on a new generation of surveys that would allow us to get a better sense of where the innovations are positioned relative to the technological frontier," Mendi says.

There was also the limited use of patents and intellectual property law. Mendi says this may be partly because firms believe patents will be hard to enforce and partly because some of their innovations - for example new ways of working in the services industry - may be hard to describe concretely, and hence hard to patent.

Victor Nzomo, a lawyer and intellectual property specialist based in Kenya, tells SciDev.Net that "Kenyans are yet to come up with basic publications that would help the common mwananchi [citizen] to understand how the IP system works and how to access it". He says that Kenyan firms' lack of legal expertise and funding makes patents problematic for them.

At the meeting, Mendi said the ultimate goal of his study was to try and suggest policy measures that could support innovation. Because of the "weak linkages" between firms and universities he has identified, he said the government may have to act as a middle man between these parties.

Fu, who was also at the meeting, agreed with this idea. During her Ghana survey, she asked innovators who she had already identified as not having university links why this was the case. "Their response was: 'They're just not interested in us'," she told the meeting.

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