By Raliat Oluyemisi Sunmonu
To borrow a line from the band Queen: "Another one bites the dust. And another one goes and another one goes..." This is the refrain that thrums in my brain every time I learn about a new patent that will potentially "play a key role in our lives."
And why such a reaction? Afterall, I know better than to make the same mistake the then head of the U.S. patent Office did when he claimed, at the dawn of the 20th century, that everything that could be invented had already been invented. And shouldn't the granting of a patent be a thing to be applauded, if not celebrated? It is usually the crowning glory of years of research, dedication and innovation. All good arguments, but alas, it is just another glaring evidence of the many inadequacies of developing nations, African counties in particular.
One look at the major exports of African countries tells the woeful tale: oil, cocoa, bananas, palm oil, precious gems and minerals…euphemistically called "cash crops". We are exporters of raw materials, subject to the vagaries of mother nature and that all-powerful force known as the "Market". A little more rain than expected, a harsher drought, a less-than stellar harvest, an oil glut in the world market, a slight slump in demand-these often mean millions of dollars in lost revenue and less money for our leaders to steal so FAR LESS money to implement public projects, such as they are.
Ghana and Ivory Coast are two of the world's largest producers of cocoa but it's the Swiss who are known for their chocolate sweets and candies. Tanzanite is a rare gemstone found only in Tanzania but the stones are shipped to Burma, the U.S. and other places to be cut, polished and set. Pick almost any country in Africa, match it with its major export(s) and the story is similar.
Our governments make noise about diversifying our exports but that usually means finding other raw materials/crops. Our exports are virtually unchanged from the colonial days. We sell raw goods to the world and buy them back as finished, value-added products. We continue to be consumers of manufactured goods, services and technology. Almost no major meeting of African leaders occurs without someone pontificating on "bridging the digital divide". What exactly does this mean in the African context? How well do the policies of the various countries really support their stated aims?
Many, if not most African governments do not have a consistent policy for supporting research and development. The private sector does not possess the resources to sustain dedicated R&D departments. Individuals, in spite of the odds, manage to use the limited resources at their disposal to create, to invent, to produce. Their achievements are but a blip on the government's radar screen. Every aspect of our societies suffers from this lack of a defined policy to encourage creativity and inventiveness:
Health Care: there are few pharmaceutical companies involved in the research and development of new drugs in Africa. Instead, we have multinationals like Bayer, Merck & Co. who do little more than package and resell their drugs. We do have enterprising merchants who create counterfeit (in other countries they are known as "generic") drugs. We have well-established "native" doctors who specialize in traditional medicine using natural herbs and plants. In Nigeria, we even have a local doctor who claims to have the cure for AIDS. Surely, it does not take much of an imagination to see that properly funded and supported, these various entities could hold the key for affordable yet effective healthcare for the population? In the case of the Nigerian doctor who claims to have the cure for AIDS, the government has come out and denounced his claims but I am yet to hear of any real, controlled tests investigating the veracity of his claims. Even if he does not have the cure for AIDS, what prevents the government from funding his research? Instead, we are forced to buy generic drugs from India and Brazil, who have (justifiably) ignored the protests of the giant pharmaceutical companies and developed cheap, effective AIDS programs using home-made drugs.
Creative Arts: there is no doubt we have some of the most creative people in Africa. Our writers, poets, painters, etc. are celebrated all over the world. Unfortunately, they are usually practicing their craft in other countries. We celebrate writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ousmane Sembene, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, etc. but where is the new generation who will take their places? Oh, they are around, but their stinging pens, their soulful voices, their colorful brushes, their very creativity is being stymied and stunted and frustrated. The lucky ones are able to leave their countries and ply their trade abroad, where their talent is recognized and duly appreciated. For the rest, unfulfilled dreams and harsh realities abound.
Science & Technology: in Nigeria, there have been several instances of enterprising geniuses who, in spite of the obstacles, produced cars, motorbikes and other electronic/mechanical devices from local materials. A cash award, fifteen minutes of fame on national television and if they are lucky, a handshake from some dignitary, is their reward. There is no follow-up, no long-term investment, nothing. The poor inventor enjoys his momentary fame and then goes back to "normal" life. Another missed opportunity, both for him and the country. But who's counting?
This is not to say that there are no organizations or companies who encourage and support entrepreneurship and R&D. However, they are few and far between. Without a defined, consistent government policy, without the government's involvement and support, there is only so much they can do. But our leaders would much rather spend money on fruitless wars, monumental projects that consume lots of resources but yield few results, out-dated weapons that only promote and sustain the afore-mentioned conflicts. They prefer to apply for foreign aid, spend a significant percentage of it to recruit foreign "experts" rather than train their own people. Other countries are filing thousands of patents per day. We consume the results of their hard work
How can we ever "bridge the technology gap" when we remain consumers and other countries the producers?
When are we going to have a viable R & D culture that is nurtured and supported by our governments?
When will Africans working in Africa, filing patents on various inventions become the norm and not an anomaly?