Thursday, 8 March 2012


-Swapna Sundar

On 2 March 2012, I was at the pleasant campus of the Vellore Institute of technology (VIT), to provide one-day training on using intellectual property in business to about 24 budding entrepreneurs from the Mano River union in West Africa. The Mano River union was established in 1973 with the objective of sub-regional economic integration between the seven countries through which the river runs, however due to civil war and other conflicts in these countries, where diamond mining is the largest industry, the union did achieve much success. The Union was reactivated in 2004 as an economic and customs union. The three-month program was sponsored by the UNIDO Centre for South-South industrial cooperation in India and was organised by the VIT Technology Business Incubator. The Hindu carried a report on this group and 27 February 2012.

I spoke largely about the requirement for an intellectual property orientation in business from the beginning, and the role of intellectual property in the growth of scaling up of the business. It was interesting to note that the participants - largely from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - had business plans which had a community orientation integrated with the use of high technology. One example was Ms. Ella’s idea of a community laundry using recycled water. While this would help in the conservation of water, it would require certain high-tech alterations to be made in the laundry machines which you would undertake. Mr. Emanuel represented a company that managed energy consumption and was promoting the use of renewable resources including solar energy. In a community oriented project was the production of soy milk and products, and the preservation of these products in a manner that would be suitable for the climate of the region. Other interesting ideas were in the area of e-commerce, web designing, fashion technology, baby cereal, and agri-biotech.

Questions ranged from the use of copyright protection software and literary works to the construction of an IP architecture surrounding products. Issues raised were also contemporary such as the recent controversy between Chinua Achebe and the American rapper known as 50cent, where the latter desired to use “things fall apart" the title of Achebe’s phenomenal book on the postcolonial experience for his movie on how an athlete overcomes physical obstacles. 50 cent respecting the renowned author’s wish changed the title of his movie, even though there was no legal obligation on him to do so.

The reading material that we had prepared containing several exercises and case studies was much appreciated by the participants. They brought their experience and knowledge to the floor during the simulation exercise on negotiation. We were told by one of the participants from the Ministry of industry, Sierra Leone, where although he had attended several IPR workshops, this was the first one where he had actually learnt the implementation of an IP strategy. Discussions also centred around harmonisation of intellectual property rights globally, and how some developed countries develop sophisticated IPR systems that permitted the patenting of traditional knowledge, to the detriment of developing and least developed nations.

Participants also gave us input on their observations on the Indian economy, particularly our lack of concern about pollution, use/wastage of non-renewable resources, lack of balance between utility and expense to achieve the utility, and primarily the lack of a cosmopolitan mentality. These, they said, could be the primary obstacles they would face in their plans to expand into India.

Personally for me, and my colleague Hariprasad, the experience was invigorating not only because of the interesting connection to the culture of the participants, but also to learn from them how intellectual property operated in their countries.

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