• Sunday, April 14, 2024
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BusinessDay

Innovation, intellectual property and the man with the salt-and-water lamp

intellectual property (IP) rights

A few weeks ago, there was a trending video that showed a man kneeling before a pastor in an Abuja church as he announced a huge new development in his life. He had just ‘gone to China’ to sign an agreement’. The agreement made it possible for his invention, which he saw as an inspiration from God, to be converted into a product that was now on the open market. He could not contain his excitement.

The invention, he revealed, produced, from a pinch of salt mixed with water, a light that would shine brightly for seventy hours continuously. And when the seventy hours were up, the light could be restored by adding another pinch of salt. It would enhance the lives of people living in rural areas who had no electricity. It was already being manufactured and sold in China. He displayed a unit of the light, showing the pastor how to turn it on and off.

“Nigeria lived by ‘importing’ the inventions of other people, from wrist watches to cars.”

The ‘Man of God’, a famous controversial pastor with a huge congregation and a large following on social media, rose to his feet, as though he were the embodiment of the God that was being adulated. In a stentorian voice, he announced to the congregation that this was just the beginning for this faithful inventor. His invention would light up whole villages and cities in Nigeria. Off-takers, even from within the congregation here, would provide finance to take the invention to the next level.

It was an easy video to critique at various levels. There was the ‘Man of God’ with his pencil-sharp suit, his gleaming shoes, and his oversized ego. There was the ‘worshipper’ grovelling abjectly on his knees before a fellow man as though he were God. And there was the tale of someone claiming to make light from salt and water, a tale guaranteed to elicit automatic scepticism from a Nigerian population grown cynical by the wear and tear of perpetual adversity and socio-political chicanery.

Out of curiosity, you decided to search the internet to see if such a product existed.

There, indeed, was the salt and water lamp, advertised for sale on Amazon, on E-Bay, and in several outlets.

None of this proved that the salt and water lamp was the invention of the Nigerian man in the Abuja video.

If, however, it turned out that it was, there were a few ‘matters arising’ that should concern Nigerians. Many inventions were the product of several years of study and experimentation, culminating in an ‘Eureka’ moment. Just as many, though, were the product of ‘serendipity’, a process well known to science in which knowledge just ‘happened’, or in which an inventor stumbled on something while researching something entirely different.

If this man invented the salt and water lamp, his countrymen, rather than jubilating with him, should have been concerned that he might well have gone to China to sign away his intellectual property for a pittance instead of registering a patent and giving someone the right to manufacture the product locally. The true wealth of modern nations, after all, was the intellectual property of their citizens. Innovation across the board, from computers to military hardware, was the basis of America’s greatness. That was why the fact that Chinese researchers, led by Huawei, registered more patents last year than their US counterparts was seen as an existential threat.

And the true value of a product is not the cost of the materials used to make it.

While the price of an iPhone 15 Pro in Nigeria was a little over two million naira, the cost of the materials used to make it was less than twenty thousand naira. The knowledge, not the material, was on the phone.

You reflected that there were 170 universities in Nigeria, both private and government-owned. Some research was always going on in these ‘ivory towers.’

There was a fundamental problem, however. The research did not ‘translate.’

The implication was that the bright ideas of citizens, whether in academia or in general society, were not being converted into useful inventions to improve the lives of citizens and bring economic value to the nation. Nigeria lived by ‘importing’ the inventions of other people, from wrist watches to cars.

No nation could ever become great by doing this.

There was a popular new Japanese machine that recently came to your attention. It was flying off the shelves in different West African countries, including Nigeria. The invention was based on the observation that a lot of the local diet involved boiling items such as yams, garri, wheat, yam powder, and fufu and ‘pasting’ them into pounded yam, amala, and eba. This Japanese machine was primed with computerised pre-set specifications for each of these foods. The user plugged in the machine, put in the water, added the garri, and set the dial. After a precise number of minutes, the eba, or fufu, was ready to eat. It was designed to meet a Nigerian lifestyle need. It was a tragedy that the innovation was not Nigerian.

If the Abuja man truly got the inspiration for his salt and water light ‘from God’, as he claimed, it was sad that no Nigerian company was on hand to ‘translate’ his knowledge to a product for him, to their mutual benefit, and the nation’s. And even if his story turned out to be a scam, there was the true-life story of the intelligent Japanese fufu, amala, and eba maker who was making a killing on Jumia and Konga, even though nobody ate amala or eba in Japan.

There were critical areas of local life waiting for innovation. Power. Food production and processing. Building and road construction materials and equipment. Transportation. Sustainable, affordable air-conditioning for markets, vehicles, and population centres in the increasingly irksome heat.

Innovation and knowledge must ‘translate’ for Nigeria to become a great modern nation, you were forced to conclude in your reflection. There was no other way.