Digital Colonialism: Africa's new communication dimension

Milena Popova examines the new challenges facing Africa that come with modernisation and technological expansion.

An African sunrise, mountains and fields

Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Flickr: Deneys

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights.

Africa is rapidly becoming "the place to be" for Western businesses. Despite common preconceptions expressed in Twitter hashtags like #FirstWorldProblems, a lot of African economies are growing rapidly, and US and European companies are looking to the continent for their next wave of consumers. This is not as surprising as you might initially think. Compared to Western Europe with its declining birth rates and, in many countries, negative population growth, Africa's population continues to grow rapidly. Nigeria alone has more babies than all of Western Europe put together, while life expectancy across the continent is increasing. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to rise by nearly 40% to over 1 billion by 2025. Real GDP growth for Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to be around the 4.5-5% mark for the rest of the decade. While this is not quite the double-digit growth of the Asian Tigers in the 1990s, it's a rate that countries like the UK can only dream of right now.

Technology plays a key part in Africa's growth. Some time this quarter, mobile phone penetration on the continent is projected to exceed 80%, and with Airtel having just successfully completed a 4G/LTE trial I wouldn't be surprised if Nigeria soon had better 4G coverage than the UK. Mobile banking is far more successful in Africa than it has been in many Western countries. Mobile phones are even used in pilot projects to improve cervical screening in Tanzania. In a high-population, rapid-growth setting with advanced technological capability and infrastructure, it should come as no surprise then that intellectual property is also rapidly becoming a hot topic in the region. The African Union proposal for a Pan-African Intellectual Property Organisation (PAIPO) started gathering momentum in the final three months of last year, raising a lot of concerns in the process. The objectives of the proposed organisation as listed in the draft statute include among other things:

  • Ensure the effective use of the intellectual property system as a tool for economic, cultural, social and technological development of the continent;
  • Promote the harmonisation of intellectual property systems of its Member States, with particular regard to protection, exploitation, commercialisation and enforcement of intellectual property rights;
  • Initiate activities that strengthen the human, financial and technical capacity of Member States to maximise the benefits of the intellectual property system to improve public health and eradicate the scourge of piracy and counterfeits on the continent; and
  • To foster and undertake positive efforts designed to raise awareness on intellectual property in Africa and to encourage the creation of a knowledge-based and innovative society as well as the importance of creative industries including, in particular, cultural and artistic industries.

A tall order if I ever saw one, and many commentators in and outside Africa are rightly questioning whether the copyright maximalism that clearly underlies these proposals is the right way to achieve any of these goals. There is a nagging suspicion that this initiative is driven not so much by a concern for the interests of people in Africa as by a desire of Western corporations to have an intellectual property regime which suits their ambitions for the continent. Given that only around 10% of applications for the registration of intellectual property (IP) rights in Africa are made by African citizens or residents, that suspicion does seem justified. Whatever intellectual property regime the African Union settles on will have a profound impact on the whole continent and its people.

As well digital technology, IP regulations have implications for food security, access to affordable medicine, as well as access to knowledge and educational resources - all areas deeply relevant to Africa's social and economic development. The PAIPO draft statute has been criticised for lacking subtlety and nuance, advocating a "one size fits all" approach to intellectual property. The calls for harmonisation of African IP laws are a definite cause for concern. If intellectual property is to be viewed as a tool for development rather than an end in itself imposed from outside, it is clear that a differentiation of IP regimes is appropriate between countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya, South Africa or South Sudan.

There is also a lack of clarity on the proposed new body's relationship with existing African IP organisations, as well as with African efforts within the wider WIPO framework. Arguably, scarce resources would be wasted on creating a third African IP body for the convenience of Western businesses and would be much better spent in encouraging the emergence of local creative and knowledge economies. The public discourse around the PAIPO proposals resulted in a petition ahead of the 5th African Union Conference of Ministers of Science and Technology in Brazzaville, Congo, in November last year, calling for an urgent rethink around IP frameworks in Africa. As Dr. Caroline Ncube, IP scholar at the University of Cape Town, points out, the outcome of this meeting is unclear, but it is likely that for now at least the current draft statute is on ice. Will it come back in a different form? Probably. Let's hope that when it does, at least some of the key issues and concerns have been addressed.

Milena tweets as @elmyra.

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By Milena Popova on Feb 27, 2013

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