The number of patents applied for and registered is one way to measure innovation and development in an organisation or a country, as patents are rights protecting the outcomes of an innovation process or invention. According to World Intellectual Property Indicators of 2018, 3.17 million Patents were filed for various inventions worldwide by individuals, companies and universities in 2017, with China alone receiving 1.38 million applications.
Sadly, the whole of Africa comprising 12.5 per cent of the world’s population, filed a meagre 16,000 patents which is only 0.5 per cent of the world’s total, and only 2,816 of the patent applicants (17.6 per cent) are resident in Africa. This means 82.4 per cent of the patent was filed mainly by non-residents such as multinationals and foreign investors who want to commercialize their technology in African markets, as such desire to protect their intellectual properties. The total patent filed in by residents of African was less than those filled in by residents of developing countries such as Turkey, Poland and Iran.
However, South Africa stood out from the other African countries in the report. The South African Intellectual Property Office is ranked 22nd in the world – the highest in Africa. The country filed almost half of the patent filed in Africa – 7,544 Patent applications and with filings heavily in civil engineering. However, 90.3 per cent of the patents were filed from abroad (by non-residents), a trend common in low- and middle-income countries. For instance, Morocco and Tunisia which were the next two countries after South Africa in the rank of the highest numbers of patent applications filed 2,224 and 555 patents, but only 198 and 172 of the applications respectively were from residents, reflecting African markets with higher foreign business investments.
On the ranking based on the numbers of resident applications filed by origin, a ranking that best reflects the innovation of the people of a country, South Africa also ranked top in Africa. The residents of South Africa filed in 728 patent applications and ranked 40 in the world, far ahead of other countries in the continent. Surprisedly, Sudan ranked, 54 in the world ahead of Morocco and Tunisia because of the 293 applications filed in the country, 281 were from residents. Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya and Ghana are ranked 58, 61, 64 and 94 in the world.
Patents and scientific publications are both major products of scientific research and patent is the first stage of research output commercialisation. The data from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) report showed that though South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria and Algeria are widely reported to produce the highest numbers of scientific publications in Africa, most of these countries are lacking in inventions and patents. Egypt, Nigeria and Algeria did not report resident applications.
The lack of data or access to data on patents for these countries and the fact that International Bureau of WIPO acts as the receiving office for Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications for these countries shows the countries lack strong intellectual property institutions or practices. However, the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP) of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, claimed the country granted 50 patents in 2017 and 93 in 2018.
Research article publications have been the most common measure for research outputs in Africa and African researchers engage mainly in academic researches which are often published for the purposes of job promotions. So for there to be more innovation, inventions and patents to come out from Africa, African researchers must be encouraged to focus on high-impact, industrial-driven and demand-driven research to solve human problems.