By Helen Nyambura-Mwaura
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - When Malagasy entrepreneur Andry Ravololonjatovo came up with the idea of a hi-tech translation service named after a local bird, the Drongo, he hesitated about registering the patent.
In many countries in Africa, protection of intellectual property (IP) is still patchy or undeveloped, and many innovators are put off by the onerous and expensive affair of registering their products.
Despite a wave of technological innovation washing over the continent, many inventors are working in secret, doing without peer feedback for fear of having their ideas pinched by copycats.
They are wary too of weak national court systems that are often largely ineffectual in enforcing IP rights.
"In the beginning, we thought of just operating without registering due to the arduous and costly process. In addition, protection is only guaranteed for 10 years," Drongo's founder Ravololonjatovo told Reuters.
Named after a black-feathered bird found in Madagascar that mimics the calls of other birds, Drongo is developing mobile applications for text translations in international languages like English and French. Ravololonjatovo hopes to widen that to software that recognizes the oral Malagasy language.
"Thinking big, we anticipate what might happen someday as we grow globally, so we need some kind of protection," Ravololonjatovo said, adding it was precisely this that prompted him to register with local patent protection authorities.
Not surprisingly, the patchy data available on African patent and trademark registrations shows a concentration in the more developed economies, where technology and regulatory and financial frameworks are more firmly established.
Figures from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) show that in 2013, there were 351 international applications from South Africa filed through its Patent Cooperating Treaty (PCT) system.
Morocco had 54 filings, Nigeria and Kenya had seven each. Africa accounted for about 500 PCT applications last year, less than 1 percent of more than 205,000 made globally, indicating patent protection is still embryonic on the fast-growing continent.
"NOT FOR THE UNINITIATED"
For IP lawyers working across Africa, challenges include infrastructure and systems problems that cause backlogs and delays when searching for, examining and issuing certificates.
Some countries such as Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy and oil producer and a favored foreign investment target, are only now transforming their manual registries into digital format to create a timely and accurate online filing system.
Antiquated laws, which can sometimes mean trademarks not being recognized, are now also being reviewed in most states as investor interest blossoms for an African continent rising out of poverty and conflict.
But costs can be an obstacle for African innovators who may be struggling to raise funds.
For Drongo, its patent protection registration cost $400, a big amount for the small start-up. But the amount of paperwork required for the process and the time spent waiting for it to happen was even more frustrating, Ravololonjatovo said.
Trade mark applications in the more expensive territories range between $1,200-$1,700 while patents require between $1,400 and $1,900, according to Johannesburg-based law firm ENS, which represents clients across the continent.
But help is at hand. To encourage start-ups to register and protect their IP, Microsoft's 4Afrika initiative has begun a free service to help developers with the process and put lawyers at their disposal if they need to protect their patents.
Microsoft is experimenting with the program in Kenya and hopes to also develop it elsewhere on the continent.
Gaelyn Scott, head of the IP department at ENS, said there were signs of greater respect being shown for patents in Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Namibia. However, other states like Ethiopia, Mozambique and Angola were proving much more difficult when trying to protect inventors' rights.
"The practice of IP in Africa, the filing, maintenance and enforcement of rights, is not for the uninitiated," she said.
"CULTURE OF SECRECY"
Louis Otieno, a director with the Microsoft 4Afrika initiative, says tech developers at forums where he speaks are often reticent about sharing their ideas publicly, fearing they may be stolen and copied. They pull him aside after his speeches.
"There is a culture of secrecy, which is counterproductive in this day and age in developer work. You should feel confident that what you are developing is yours and have a way of proving it's yours," Otieno said.
Although most African countries have laws protecting inventions and intellectual property on their books, these are often not tested. There are also only a small number of judges and lawyers on the vast continent well versed with the sector.
Often, arguments before an African court or registry were followed by delays in handing down decisions that at times stretched into years, a huge frustration for plaintiffs.
ENS' Scott said most of the filings registering trademarks in Africa were by foreigners, who were more familiar with the IP protection concept and procedures from their own countries.
South Africa's IP office, for example, received 7,444 patent applications in 2012. Of these, 608 were filed by residents, the rest were by foreign applicants, according to WIPO statistics.
Otieno said an increase IP protection court cases being heard in Africa could spur more specialization and expertise.
His advice to African entrepreneurs?
"You should not hide but tell everybody who cares to listen, 'See what I have created, use it but pay royalties to use it'".
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood)