Intellectual property in Rwanda: perceptions, awareness, behaviour

For years, Rwanda’s economic value has been linked with its tangible assets. This includes its natural resources, cash crops such as coffee and tea.

For years, Rwanda’s economic value has been linked with its tangible assets. This includes its natural resources, cash crops such as coffee and tea.

However, with the advent of the knowledge economy which is also seen as the latest stage of development at the global economic landscape, the value proposition is shifting all around the world and the time is now for Rwanda to realise that the capacity for ideas and information to generate value outweighs that of traditional sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing.


Broadly speaking, the Intellectual Property (IP) policy and legal environment in Rwanda has continued to evolve with incremental changes being introduced over time.


The Intellectual Property law regime in Rwanda accommodates laws that protect inventors, innovators, creators of industrial designs, creators of layout designs used in trade, authors of literary, artistic and scientific works and any other works of an original intellectual creation.


What is the problem then?

The IP framework in Rwanda has developed largely by push factors in form of membership to regional and international organisations and bilateral assistance programmes along the lines of international developments without specific reference to the needs of Rwandan innovators and technology users.

More so, the laws are technical and very few people understand their rights and obligations under the law and, worse still, IP has been perceived as solely a legal issue and thus, has nothing to do with every day management of a business.

This misconception has largely been dictated by the Rwandan formal education system where IP has traditionally been a preserve for lawyers, especially at University level.

Pertinently, a large majority of Rwandan citizens who display strong support for IP consider that at a personal level, engaging in IP infringement behaviour may be justified to cope with the consequences of limited purchasing power or to protest against an economic model driven by a market economy and premium brands.

This apparent contradiction highlights the gap that exists between shared principles (that would apply when considering society at large) and the realities of a pragmatic and probably more self-centered individual way of life. The paradox lies in the fact that these two attitudes are not mutually exclusive.

Be that as it may, a number of Government institutions have now recognised the need to increase awareness of the value of IP Rwanda beyond the University setting.

Key among these are the Ministry of Trade, Industry and East African Affairs, and the Ministry of Sports and Culture, and Rwanda Development Board. This realisation is critical and timely and I will share a few reasons in support of this position.

The Rwanda Vision 2020 highlights “Human resource development and a knowledge-based economy” as one of its six priorities. Many policymakers have gotten to appreciate that to build a -based economy, Intellectual Property is central to converting that raw material to knowledge, information and ideas into tradable intellectual property assets and to ensuring that the national economy continues to thrive.

Secondly, what has compelled most organisations to rethink the intellectual property edification processes is the invasiveness of the internet.

The internet is recognised worldwide as being the most disruptive technology of the past century, almost in the same measure that mobile telephony was to Africa in the 1990s.

For instance, with a click of the ‘mouse’ SMEs in Rwanda can access information on the market, source of their raw materials, possible partners and reach out to clients without major barriers to trade, such as national boundaries and distance.

More importantly, in the context of intellectual property, cultural goods such as music now constitute a significant value of Rwanda’s invisible exports.

The Ministry of Trade, Industry and East African Affairs as well as other partner institutions have realised that enhancing artists and other actors in the creative industries sector will in turn lead to an increase in service sector exports.

Beyond the prevailing strategies lie huge institutional bottlenecks to overcome. The basic concepts of intellectual property and its application at an enterprise level and benefits at the macro level are yet to be understood by public officials.

This could significantly delay or even derail any efforts in the direction of curriculum review or even public sensitisation. It therefore means that all public and private organisations and companies should join hands and work together to enhance understanding on a subject that could potentially lift many from poverty as well as have a positive impact on the country’s export earnings..

The writer is a project manager at the Private Sector Federation

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