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First group awarded graduate degree in IP

On 12 June, thirty-nine men and women became the first professionals to be awarded master’s degrees in Intellectual Property (IP), from a higher education institution in sub-Saharan Africa. The group, which included university lecturers and lawyers as well as business and other professionals, were awarded degree certificates at Africa University’s 16th Graduation Ceremony on Saturday.

Through a combination of on-campus and distance learning, two groups of graduate students successfully completed the training. The first group, comprised of 22 students, enrolled in 2008. A second group of 26 students enrolled in 2009. In both cases, there were 15 African countries represented among the students. Of the 48 students in the two cohorts, 39 students from 14 countries graduated this year. Together, they form a complement of leaders and trainers who are expected to help African nations to exploit the full potential of their intellectual property assets in promoting development.

The one-year Master in Intellectual Property (MIP) degree programme is being delivered by Africa University in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), a United Nations organ; and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO).

“The training I received from Africa University and WIPO has been of tremendous help as I have come to appreciate the importance of IP awareness,” said Aleck Ncube, a Zimbabwean who enrolled in the programme when it was launched in 2008.

Ncube is on the faculty at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology (NUST). Since completing his training in mid-2009, he has been working with colleagues to set up an IP Education Unit within the NUST Technology Park Department. Ncube notes that, until recently, researchers could utilize NUST’s facilities or use the institution as a base as they developed new technologies and then leave without having to share the material benefits of whatever they developed with the University. His current efforts are aimed at ensuring that both the innovators and the institution benefit from any new knowledge and inventions developed by student and faculty researchers at NUST. For Ncube, the successful commercialisation of research output in Africa is crucial to development, especially in the context of dwindling public funding for higher education institutions.

 “The impact of my input is that the efficiency of the Techno park department will be greatly enhanced and the University is expecting to see an increase in creativity and inventive processes from its faculties...the major aim is to make academics and students aware of the value of their intellectual creativity and to derive benefits from it,” Ncube said.

In Ghana, fellow MIP graduates John Assan Benson and Elizabeth Ama Boakye are also engaged in outreach that they hope will result in the utilization of IP to reduce unemployment and ‘brain drain’ in their country. Benson and Boakye, principals of a firm called Intellectual Property Assets Rights Management (IPARM), are targeting the media as well as training institutions. In March 2010, they organised a two-day seminar on such topics as Branding and IP Assets Protection and Commercialisation for more than 450 college students at Takoradi Polytechnic in Ghana.

For Benson and Boakye, the hope is that their efforts will mobilize large numbers of Ghanaians to pursue training in IP and use that training to stimulate national development.

“Ghanaians cannot afford to sit back and watch the world accelerate economic progress with IP in the new digital era,” said Benson.

In their various countries, the graduates of the MIP programme at Africa University are articulating awareness-building and training efforts that range from workshops with learning institutions and business enterprises to talk shows on TV and Radio that engage policy makers. These efforts are shaping a better understanding of the various components of IP such as patents, trademarks, trade secrets, genetic resources, copyrights and related rights, utility models, industrial designs and traditional knowledge and cultural expressions.

However, Aleck Ncube of NUST is taking the work even further. In July, Ncube will begin a Fulbright African Research Scholar Fellowship at the Franklin Pierce Law Centre in New Hampshire, with funding from the U.S. State Department. Based at the International Technology Transfer Institute (ITTI), Ncube will conduct research on the landmark Bayh-Dohle Act, enacted in 1980, which is credited with revolutionizing the way US universities handle inventions and innovations.

“I am interested in finding out how American universities have been successful in commercializing their research output,” said Ncube. He’s also keen to learn more about how companies partner with universities in the exploitation, export and transfer of new technology.

The MIP programme at Africa University is housed in the Institute of Peace, Leadership and Governance.

Story By Andra Stevens

Click here to view graduation ceremony images