A Ghanaian, Edward Kwakwa, who has been appointed Assistant Director General at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), has asked developing countries to pay more interest to securing the creative rights of their citizens.
Protecting their Intellectual Property would also lead to the creation of jobs and boost socio-economic growth.
Mr Kwakwa told the GNA in an email interview: “Innovation and creativity are not the sole preserve of Western or advanced economies but should also be to the benefit of all countries, including developing and least-developed countries.”
A lawyer by profession, Mr Kwakwa was WIPO Legal Counsel before his appointment, having been with the organisation since 1996.
In his new position, he is heading the Global Challenges and Partnerships Sector in Geneva.
He will oversee issues relating to traditional knowledge (TK), traditional cultural expression (TCE), and genetic resources.
He told the GNA:“I believe there are many things we could, and should, change.
“For example, we must strive to change the narrative of Intellectual Property being seen as an esoteric topic of interest only to lawyers and engineers.
“IP is a driver of enterprise growth; it is a tool for job creation, a means to enhance social vibrancy, and a tool to unleash the power of creativity and ingenuity.”
Mr Kwakwa explained that traditional knowledge was not limited to any specific technical fields, and may include agricultural, environmental and medicinal knowledge.
“It also encompasses knowledge associated with genetic resources such as plants and animals.
“Traditional cultural expressions often form part of the identity and heritage of an indigenous people or local community, and they are passed down from generation to generation.”
In Africa, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions are a way of life.
Asked whether these were being properly protected by Africans, Mr Kwakwa said: “While there is no international protection for TK yet, it is instructive that the only regional instrument for the protection of TK is that of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO), which in 2011 adopted The Swakopmund Protocol on the Protection of Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Folklore.
“The Protocol provides a legal framework that empowers TK holders to utilise their resources for socio-economic development; provides for the protection of trans-boundary TK and TCEs; prevents misappropriation and the illicit grant of patents; provides a model for national legislative development and as an African position framework for WIPO’s IGC (intergovernmental committee) process.
“In addition to this regional instrument, some African countries have enacted domestic legislation to protect TK and TCEs in their countries.”
On whether African countries had done enough to safeguard the rights of traditional medicine and of plants that were now being used for producing natural health products that proliferated in the West, Mr Kwakwa said these countries had a long way to go to safeguard these rights.
The debate on these was ongoing at global groupings such as WIPO itself and the World Trade Organisation, he stated.
Asked about the controversial issue of “cultural appropriation”, whereby black people complain about their culture being taken over by non-black people, Mr Kwakwa said this had come up in various forms.
“You will recall, for example, that almost two years ago, the Ghana Folklore Board threatened to sue Marvel Studios, the producers of the movie, Black Panther, for using Ghana’s kente designs and Adinkra symbols without permission in the movie,” he said. “Similarly, following the recent remake of Walt Disney’s The Lion King featuring Beyoncé, there was a worldwide petition for the withdrawal of the Swahili phrase ‘hakuna matata’, although Disney had trademarked the phrase as far back as 1994 with its original animation of The Lion King.
“The concerns raised include the following: the question of compensation.
“Here, the charge is frequently made that in many cases where TK is exploited, the communities do not derive any economic benefits.”
Even where the communities were compensated, he noted, the benefits often paled in comparison to the huge profits made by the exploiters.
“Other concerns relate to uses of TK that result in the expropriation of the interests that traditional communities have and the unauthorised public disclosure and use of secret knowledge, images and other sensitive information pertaining to traditional communities.”
During the election for Director General last year, Mr Kwakwa, who was backed by the Ghanaian government, finished third in the first round of voting with 16 votes.
He withdrew before the second round, which was won by Daren Tang of Singapore.
About his new appointment, he told the GNA: “I feel a sense of gratitude, first and foremost to the president and the government of Ghana for the considerable and unstinting support I received, from my nomination as Ghana’s candidate for the position of Director General, through to my nomination by the new Director General and my confirmation by the WIPO member states as the Assistant Director General for Global Challenges and Partnerships at WIPO”.
Out of WIPO’s 193 member states, 54 are from Africa, making them the biggest bloc in the organisation. WIPO is a specialised agency of the UN.
The African members are generally party to the key WIPO-administered IP treaties, such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, and the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property.
“On the whole, the African bloc is now more active and participates more effectively in WIPO discussions on governance, IP strategy formulation and norm-making in general,” Mr Kwakwa told the GNA.
He will serve in his current position until September 2026.