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Opinions of Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Columnist: Dr. Courage Kosi Setsoafia Saba

Foreign companies must be prevented from copying local innovations with impunity

There have been several Ghanaian innovations and inventions in this period of COVID-19 since it landed on our soil in March, 2020.

These innovations were largely surrounding hand washing devices since hand washing was one of the gold standards recommended to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The first major innovation that caught the eyes of so many Ghanaians was the solar-powered hands-free hand washing device produced by Jude Osei and Richard Kwarteng. This device dispenses water and soap without touching the device with the hands. This helps users to prevent any contamination from the taps of the Veronica Buckets that were widely used. The solar-powered hand washing device was slightly expensive due to the high cost of the components.

Soon after, some innovative Ghanaians have tried to figure out how to produce hand washing devices with several techniques and designs which are largely foot-operated and hands-free. These technologies are cheaper than the solar-powered technology and make them comparatively cheaper and affordable to Ghanaians.

Myriads of Ghanaian artisans turned their energies and investments in the production and sale of these foot-operated hand washing devices because of the high demands for them by not only individuals but churches, mosques, schools, shops, supermarkets etc.

I was really dumbfounded when I realized two weeks ago that some foreign companies in Ghana have copied the local innovations, produced them massively and now competing with our local artisans in their own country. Is it possible for a Ghanaian to do such a thing in their countries?

This development actually sent my mind back to the days of colonialism where local innovations or traditional knowledge were copied, sent back to colonial master’s countries, improved upon and brought back to us in a different format as if they have invented. In most of these cases, no recognition was given to the originators of the ideas but those companies pose as the inventors of the ideas.

It also dawned on me that the same thing could be going on but in a different form due to the non-enforcement of intellectual property laws to protect local innovations or traditional knowledge. We have seen several versions of our local innovations replicated with impunity by foreigners in this country and led to the collapse of local industries. Gone were the days when several Ghanaians derived their livelihoods from the production and sale of our popular ´tie and dye´. Many were those who lost their livelihoods when cheaper materials were imported or produced secretly by foreigners in our country. There are several other innovations and traditional knowledge that foreigners copied and benefitted from in this country with impunity at the expense of Ghanaians. There are other several examples. Are we our own enemies?

The resultant effect of such acts if not curtailed will be apathy towards local innovations and initiatives since they can easily be copied by foreign companies who are already well-established and have the incentives to produce them in larger quantities at the expense of the poor innovator. Another effect may be that innovators may be reluctant to launch their innovative ideas in the country since they afraid they may be copied with impunity.

The advice to the authorities working on intellectual property (IP) issues in Ghana is that, the IP office should be decentralized to the regional capitals to allow for the easy application for IP. The processes involved in acquiring IP should be made less cumbersome for ordinary Ghanaians to follow and the whole process should be fast tracked with the advent of modern technology. Individuals and companies who copy local innovations or traditional knowledge should be punished according to the intellectual property law. These individuals or companies should be encouraged to contact innovators in order to agree on how to upscale their innovations to the benefit of all the parties involved.

On the part of the media, they may also question some of those foreign companies who are involved in copying local innovations and traditional knowledge. By now, I don’t think there is any media house that is oblivious of all the innovations that Ghanaians have come out with during this period of COVID-19. Accepting to market or advertise such copied products will be a disservice to the hardworking artisans and innovators in Ghana.

It can also be said that these companies may not be working alone to copy local innovation and traditional knowledge but with the help of some of their Ghanaian accomplices. A good citizen of Ghana must be patriotic and must not take the ideas that he or she did not originate to a foreign company and pretend to be the innovator. If such people don’t know that it is tantamount to robbery, they must be educated. There must be a very good sensitization drive among all Ghanaians especially artisans about the IP laws of Ghana as well as the International IP laws.