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More can be done to reinforce intellectual property rights in Africa

African economies will need to rebalance in the post-Covid-19 era, with creativity and ingenuity as high priorities. In some respects, the current pandemic is the most geopolitically significant non-military challenge to shape global affairs since World War II. In the years immediately following 1945, Europe, Japan and North America were able to grow rapidly, in part by hitching their sails – for several decades- to affordable oil exports from the Middle East. Just as petroleum fueled global economies throughout the 20th century, big data is the currency of the 2000’s. Given the strategic necessity for the free flow of oil to continue through the world’s maritime chokepoints (e.g. Suez and Panama Canals), big data must keep stream unabated. But big data is not enough: we need innovation and new patents to fuel development in a post-covid, de-globalized world. And Intellectual Property (IP) will be a fundamental currency too.

In some parts of the world, like Latin America, we have already seen things done very different. In Venezuela, the government announced very high fees for patents in 2017 which is seen as a form of market protectionism but, will also further isolate Venezuela’s economy as well as hurting entrepreneurs. This is a symptom of Venezuela's over-reliance on oil and gas at the expense of energy innovation of startups, SMEs and others. But Africa should not follow this path. Actually, IP laws can help creating jobs in African countries. Africa should therefore bolster innovation, supporting new creative entrepreneurships through IP (SMEs provide 80% of African jobs) to deal with future challenges of demographic bomb and climate change, and use the opportunities of demographic dividend and green revolution in the future for the creation of smart cities as well as smart cultivations and industries.

Another oil-rich state could prove therefore a model for African countries seeking to bolster their own strong intellectual property sectors: Saudi Arabia. While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is practically synonymous with oil, it is rapidly becoming an important IP hub. The Kingdom is moving well beyond its conventional tropes of a desert monarchy with traditional cultural norms. The KSA of the 21st century is undergoing tremendous change, emerging as a new center of synergy for international sporting events including Formula One Racing, boxing, golf and tennis. And the Kingdom is also an emerging epicenter for becoming the regional authority in the area of IP; but it has also become a regional vanguard for intellectual property and the global fight against digital piracy.

Thus far in 2021, they have shut down more than 378 websites that transmit football games, movies and series, as well as about 2.5 million items of tape material of illegal broadcast that violate IP rights. KSA’s IP regulation actions affirm the existing void in combatting, for example, the pervasive nature of football match streaming piracy, as highlighted by the victory in French courts by Qatari broadcast company, beIN Sports and others adversely impacted by the illicit practice.  Some of that content was broadcast to Africa; a surprising amount of it involved African IP, albeit indirectly. Illegal piracy and the failure to enforce those rights takes zeros out of the paychecks of ’s biggest football stars. 

Too often African countries have favored weaker intellectual property enforcement on things like pharmaceuticals. Drugs like viagra which require a prescription in the U.S. can be found in knock-off form across the region. Recently, South Africa wanted even to suspend patents on Covid-19 vaccines, but that would be a mistake, flooding the market with counterfeit drugs, and pushing back the timetable for delivery of vaccines for the continent.

This attitude has been to the detriment of Africa's IPs, including many sports icons and superstars who surely recognize the important of protecting their intellectual property. This will be an increasing and reasonable demand they will make of countries as a prerequisite to choosing where to come for a tournament, match or exhibition. Realizing the importance of IP in protecting the integrity of athletes’ brands, while also achieving the country's ambitions, stimulating business growth and economic competitiveness, the Saudi government established the Saudi Authority for Intellectual Property (SAIP) in 2018, to be the KSA’s competent authority for intellectual property.

Since its accession to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 1982, Saudi Arabia has attached increasing importance to intellectual property and has actively worked to achieve WIPO’s mission to promote innovation and creativity for the economic, social and cultural development of all countries. The Kingdom’s commitment to these objectives was on display last year when the Saudi Intellectual Property and the G20 Saudi Secretariat organized the IP20+ Global Intellectual Property Challenges Forum as part of the International Conferences Program, convening the heads of the heads of IP offices in G20 countries. Key action items included establishing priorities in response to global pandemics and emergencies, such as harmonizing IP operation measures, sharing IP policies and disseminating IP knowledge.

The 2020 Saudi convening was a critical engagement given that the G20 countries represent around 80% of the world’s economic output, two-thirds of global population and three-quarters of international trade, and around 96% of all patent filings, 91% of all trademark filings, 94% of worldwide design filings, and 73% of creative goods exports were from G20 countries. The KSA has invited the IP officials from the US and UK for an inspection tour of the Kingdom’s facilities in this effort.

Its recognition of intellectual property as a central issue for the new economy in the 21st century, and its current management of the challenges that come with IP, offers a clear, coherent template for African nations. As IP constitutes the new portal for a myriad engagements in the global economy, African countries can benefit from the Saudi model, giving them a gateway to the globalized new world and to the post-covid times that will require ingenuity and creativity, but also protection of IP for the needed and urgent development of African continent.   

Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa


Africa has made remarkable progress in recent years, a phenomenon popularly known as “Africa rising”, but in the short-term the continent faces a demographic bomb as more young people enter into the work force then it can possibly provide jobs. This together with climate change disasters and vulnerabilities which risks the long-term sustainability of Africa's economic development.

By 2030, it is expected that 6 of the world’s 41 megacities will be African and the African Economic Outlook 2016 predicts that Africa could see its slum population triple by 2050. The infrastructures in the African cities, with some exceptions, like the planning of smart cities in countries as Rwanda, Kenya, or Ghana, is largely not yet ready to respond to the transformation the continent is seeing.

Yet, local governance often concentrates on construction without focusing first on sustainable transportation and decent housing. For megacities this  will mean many problems in the near future, from sewages to pollution, from transportation to communication. Therefore, for its development, besides energy supply and industrialization, Africa will need urbanizations that are sustainable, adapt to businesses, and at the same time able to give a decent living to the people, while typical urban resident in Africa still lives in a slum or an informal settlement, and lacks access to basic services.

The international community is not yet well aware of this urgent need. There is not a real support yet by Europe for example, the continent that colonized Africa in the last centuries for its interests and that now is still sleeping at economic level, with few projects of development, even if is present at security level with its military operations. But as the security-development nexus explains, there is no security without development, the two legs go together to make the continent walk towards its future. China in this sense is awakening and concentrating on Africa, building infrastructure on the continent. As are Arab countries like UAE. But there are also some European countries that are investing for development with different goals.

There are in particular some Italian projects worth noting. I am currently in Ethiopia where Webuild, former Salini Impregilo construction firm, is building a gigantic and fundamental project for the future of the Horn of Africa: the GERD, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The primary purpose of the dam is electricity production to relieve Ethiopia’s energy shortage and for export to neighboring countries. The dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed. Filling the reservoir began in 2020 and will take few years, depending on hydrologic conditions and agreements reached between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.

These infrastructures show how Italy could, with excellences such as Webuild, but also together with the European Union for supporting good governance and urban planning, help build smart cities in Africa, given the urgency of the situation, and much more efficient than what China does, given the fact that China is interested mostly in expanding its market and economic growth, even if making African countries dependent on her loans and at risk of default or building things inefficiently (the railway infrastructure between Addis Ababa and Djibouti is an example of it, with few trains arriving very far from the cities and so not accessible or useful to the populations).  There are also some examples that could be taken as model for Africa, like the smart cities which are currently built in the Gulf, where there are various projects including NEOM-The Line, the city in Saudi Arabia made by a line of 170 KM of small urban communities connected by fast and sustainable transport. But in Africa there are problems at government level, with incapacities to make real efficient urban planning, with an endemic corruption that together with the foreign attempt of easy gains make the rest, now that investments in this sector are at an all-time high. In Addis Abeba for example different Chinese and Emirates companies are transforming the city in a “jungle of concrete” with a fast real estate speculation that are useless as often left empty because people cannot afford them. And there is instead a lack of investment in infrastructures, transportation in particular, making the diplomatic capital of Africa (being the HQ of African Union) impossible to cross in decent time.

Hopefully, smart working will arrive soon in Africa, making city transportation less needed, but the path towards this doesn’t seem there yet. So, could Africa be able to pull the strings and make a future sustainable urbanization for the benefits of its population that will be almost half of humanity by the end of the century? Future will say but decisions by bold visionary leaders need to be taken fast as constructions need decades to be realized. The first problem therefore is to elect, where possible, such type of leaders.


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A young girl in Chad. The people of the Sahel region and Africa writ large face an uncertain future the author writes.

Terrorist expansion and ethnic conflicts in Africa: worsening times lies ahead for African security

With the killing of the Chadian president by terrorist groups and new ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia a new

wave of clashes and instability is impacting Africa. Not that the continent was very safe and stable

before, with a legacy of post-colonial dictatorships and insecurity increased with the failure of Arab

Spring and the birth of new terrorist groups in the last ten years. But today the continent seems on the

verge of something worst. Things seems to heat up for security in Africa.



The situation in Mali out of hands of French intervention, with the killing of even UN peacekeepers, the

Nigerian Boko Haram increasing power weakening state security forces, the Islamic State expanding in

DRC and Al Shabaab expanding in East Africa, show that things are pretty gloomy on the security side of

Africa. And not only terrorist threat is looming on the future of Africa. The ethic strives are threatening

to destroy stable countries and fragile democratization transitions too. Take the example of Ethiopia, a

stable state until recently, again under the threat of civil war with the starting of the Tigray conflict last

November and the recent attacks between Amhara and Oromo people, increasing political and ethnic

violence but also humanitarian disaster.



I was in Tigray in the spring of 2019 to visit the Rock hewn churches and the monasteries that you could

reach only by foot, sometimes climbing with your hands. It is an amazing place, where you can breathe

spirituality of people, coming also from isolation of land, mostly a rock land, and the ancient civilization

of Axum. Today the cry from the region it's not hard to hear, with the hundreds of thousands of refugees,

hundreds of people killed, thousands of women raped and children taken from their mothers. Some

organizations speak about genocide others just confirm the destruction of the structures like Axum

Airport, Aduwa industry, agricultural tools and schools. As always, when some domestic conflicts arise,

besides to deal internally with elements that made it possible, from ethnic grievances to the political

elites’ power struggles, we need to see the regional system, with its regional dynamics and geopolitics,

how can support a domestic stabilization.



Unfortunately, the African Union is still weak to respond in a coherent and coordinated manner to the

terrorist threat that is expanding from the Sahel to Sub-Saharan Africa, from West to East. Silencing the

Guns program failed, with Last year AU inaugurated the new HQ of CISSA, the Committee of Intelligence

and Security Services, but the path seems long in the sharing of information among intelligence services

in order to fight once and for all armed conflicts in Africa. The other problem is that terrorist threat as

well as ethnic conflicts can be won only addressing root causes of instability and insecurity and so the all

spectrum of “Human Security” of the population, meaning the freedom from fear, from want and from

indignity, and Africa is still backward on this: poverty in Sub-Sahara Africa continues to rise. Not only

that but with modern complex times international threats are growing exponentially and making things

worst, from the pandemics like Covid 19, who worsened the human security situation in the continent,

to the natural disasters expected in the next decades with climate change that coupled with

demographic bomb (Africa expected to become four times the current population, reaching 4.5 billion

people by the end of the century) could make of Africa the first failed continent in human history.



Africa needs some anchor states, meaning some stable and powerful states that can represent the

leadership for continent-wide security and economic initiatives, as it has been for Europe guided by

France, Germany and Italy after WWII. Morocco, Egypt and South Africa are the candidates for North

and Southern part of the continent, but for East, West and Central Africa the path is still long with the

majority of countries considered “fragile states”. For this reason there is an urgent need for a Panafrican


strategy by the AU, supported by the UN and also the great powers of the world, first of all EU that

should even think to a modern Marshall Plan, on how to really tackle the terrorist threat expanding in

the continent, the ethnic grievances that need to be dealt with, in particular when countries will pass

from the many dictatorships to fragile democracies, and the urgent development need to couple with

sustainable energy production and solution to the endemic poverty that will worsen with demographic

expansion and urbanization. The work to be done is a lot, but the institutions, both domestically and

continental, seem to not rise to the occasion.

Sergey Pesterev.jpeg
Sahara Desert, Morocco (Sergey Pesterev via Unsplash)

In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, author Jared Diamond examines various factors that led to instances of societal collapse in the past, and argues that our modern society faces many of these same challenges but on a larger scale. Today, let alone the collapse of societies, there is even a risk to the survival of our species.

Diamond was one of the first to propose that climate change and environmental degradation could lead civilizations to collapse. According to him, our current society is unsustainable and unless we make profound changes in behavior. History he showed us is full of examples of civilizational collapse because of limited resources and exploding populations.

Africa is the focus of world population growth this century. The African population is expected to increase from about 1.3 billion in 2020 to 4.5 billion by 2100, the biggest change in human history in just a few generations. If economic development and industrialization continue to be based on fossil fuel, it would probably mean the end of the planet.

Climate change and the environmental consequences will have increasing impact on the continent in the next few years. As we saw with the recent locust invasion in East Africa, Africa will see a number of environmental challenges, ranging from desertification to natural disasters, and new pandemics similar to Ebola could arrive very soon. This, coupled with a population explosion humankind, could make Africa the first “failed continent” in human history.

Any country would struggle to provide subsidized shelter, education, jobs, healthcare, and pensions for such a fast-growing population. Nor will it be possible to manage the brutal urbanization that will inevitably follow the provision of the required infrastructure, transportation, and telecommunications.

Looking to emulate “First World” societies, the youth in Africa will want improved living standards, and if they cannot get them at home, they will go in search of it, making the current migration surge to Western countries look like a picnic.


Political and Economic Challenges

Fast population growth also has implications for democracy. Many African dictators have been in power for decades. Neither party systems nor civil society organizations seem to be able to take the lead in a democratic transition. Compounding the problems of inefficient institutions, endemic corruption, and a lack of capacity and know-how are weak states, climate change, and resource scarcity. It’s a recipe for collapse. And COVID-19 has become a threat multiplier.

Besides the health crisis, the biggest challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for Africa will be the economic and political ones. A report by the African Union warns that Africa could lose about 20 million jobs in 2020 due to the pandemic. This report was, however, done at the beginning of the spread of the disease in Africa, when there were relatively few cases. Another study, “Tackling COVID-19 in Africa” by McKinsey & Company—also compiled at the beginning of the pandemic on the continent—predicted that Africa’s economies could experience a loss of between US$90 billion and US$200 billion in 2020. But if the pandemic were to continue into 2021, as is starting to appear likely, things will get much worse.

For post-pandemic recovery, there would therefore be a strong need to increase the welfare state in all African countries, with Keynesian policies of government support. But this risks a mounting debt crisis for many African states. Africa already has some of the poorest and most indebted countries in the world, including Eritrea with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 127 percent and Mozambique with a ratio of 124 percent.

Competition among the major world powers has led to China in particular seeking to gain influence on the African continent by using debt-trap diplomacy. It extends large loans for infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative, but uses these investments to demand greater influence and access to commodities.

At social and political level, much unrest and instability are anticipated as the economic crisis unfolds this year and even more so next year. Furthermore, political heavy-handedness and anti-democratic enforcement measures will risk provoking more popular unrest. Since refugees, migrants, and displaced people across Africa are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission, governments should help to control the refugee camps and avoid border closures that could put vulnerable people at greater risk. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that the health infrastructure in Africa is inadequate to deal with such crises.


An Opportunity for Change

Yet not all is lost. The future always brings challenges and threats, but also possibilities and opportunities.

Africa could still do a lot with good leadership and cooperation. And the post-COVID-19 era could provide the opportunity for change. The most important step for Africa in the near future is to move rapidly toward an integrated market by implementing the African Free Trade Zone, and at the same time to have the support of Europe.

 The Mediterranean could again become the bridge between Europe and Africa, with the possibility to make societies on either side flourish again. Instead of being the cemetery for migrants trying to cross its waters, the Mediterranean could become the connector between civilizations and histories, markets and people, for a future of prosperity and peace on both shores.

To make Africa the region of opportunities, both the Europe Union and the African Union will have to invest in the stability of the continent and in the human security of its people.

The United Nations has defined human security as “freedom from fear, from want, and from indignity,” but human security in Africa is at the lowest level in the world.

To invest in human security in Africa means first of all to address the root causes of instability and to carry out a real “peace-building” process with investments at the social, political, and economic levels of society.

Addressing the root causes of instability would involve combating endemic corruption at institutional level, empowering civil society organizations, supporting democratization, and working with international businesses to stop the pillaging of African resources. It also requires speaking out about human rights violations, tackling the security-development nexus, fighting armed groups benefitting from economic underdevelopment, supporting local economic development, and ending gender inequality and violence against women.


A Marshall Plan For Africa

Europe and the African continent will have to make important choices over the next few decades after the pandemic-induced economic crisis, which will be much worse than the economic downturn that started in 1929 leading to the "Great Depression."

This will be the decisive century for the survival of the world, and Africa and Europe will take center stage. The European Union could consider something similar to the United States’ Marshall Plan, a program to provide aid to a devastated Europe after World War II. My own country, Italy, was the third largest recipient of Marshall Plan aid. Decades after independence, African countries are still recovering from the effects of colonialism and the dictatorships that followed it, which Europe often supported. A similar plan should be developed for these countries.

The European Union will have to choose between pivoting to Africa or looking inward while struggling with domestic economic stagnation, and possibly losing the opportunity to become the cooperative leader that the world needs in this century. And Africa will have to decide whether it will look to the future or keep blaming the past.

These are tough choices, but there is no easy solution for ensuring the future of humankind: we need visionary leadership and courageous actions, or face the collapse of societies.


Maurizio Geri is an analyst on peace, security, defense, and strategic foresight. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.


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