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Global partnerships protecting intellectual property in Africa

By Ivory King

Traditional crafts across the globe have long held value to world travelers and foreign collectors, but often the people who use their own hands to create these items never receive their true value. Sometimes that is due to a distributor or import/exporter taking much of the final price for themselves, other times the designs are copied and mass-produced at a factory or some other location. While both we consumers and these artisans are unused to such crafts - especially if they are traditionally made - being considered intellectual property, this approach could help global craftspeople earn a better living.

Intellectual property and patents can be opaque concepts to traditional makers and designers, but most of the barriers to adoption lie in education. Organizations are focusing on outreach about these capitalist ways to gain value from the traditional craft livelihood. The Kenya Copyright Board (KECOBO) partnered with Craft Afrika to encourage IP adoption by artisans and designers and improve the reputation of enforcement.

Photo by Dc Lovensky on Unsplash
Photo by Dc Lovensky on Unsplash


According to social entrepreneur Kenneth Ndua, there’s a lot of misinformation in the Kenyan artisan community that patenting work is expensive and ineffective for preventing their work from being stolen. Craft Afrika has been facilitating learning sessions for this community since 2012, beginning with peer-to-peer meetings focused on creative enterprise and IP. The partnership hopes to demonstrate IP as a business asset, engender practical, first-hand knowledge by the artisans, and a program that will teach local designers the process from “conception to monetization.” The IP at Work project, as Craft Afrika refers to it, is designed as a year-long program, and it supplies technical and partial financial support while the group of 10 designers goes through it. The program specifically focuses on providing specific examples of the process so that the program students will have more confidence in the process.

Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash
Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash

While artisans have much to gain from considering their work to be intellectual property in the forms of better income and job stability, the acceptance of crafts as IP can have even further reaching effects. In May 2017, the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law a bill that makes it easier for people to acquire credit by considering intellectual property and other assets as collateral. In implementation, this could mean an entire category of creative entrepreneurs will be enabled to acquire loans and means to vehicles or property that would otherwise be inaccessible. But there is still ways to go as it’s a difficult process to value IP assets, with multiple complications like market value.

Another partnership that was launched by the International Trade Centre and the World Intellectual Property Organization protects artisans in developing countries from copying and imitation. The two groups produced a guide that promotes IP as the “best available tool for deterring unfair competition and for creating and maintaining exclusivity over creative and innovative output in the marketplace.” The ITC and WIPO cover how to make this tool accessible to creators, and also how to market their products in other countries. The guide offers case studies from Senegal with native-style furniture and other countries where indigenous or local crafts have experienced popularity enough to be copied by third parties.

As these partnerships have identified, artisans have so much to gain from leveraging intellectual property laws to their advantage. While traditional crafts are not often seen in this light, by the people who make them or the people who buy them, promoting this view can pay off in so many ways. Not only that, but in the vacuum other people have stepped in to patent or copyright indigenous crafts. One remarkable example of this is the kiondo woven Kenyan basket, which many Kenyans believe the Japanese have stolen from them. The Kiondo brand was patented, though in practical terms Kenya has not had their traditional basket barred from export because of this patent. Still, the myth is pervasive, and it undermines IP initiatives on the continent. But with the promotion of more examples of success, artisans can enjoy better income, protection of their livelihoods and even increased access to credit.

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Global partnerships protecting intellectual property in Africa

y Ivory King Traditional crafts across the globe have long held value to world travelers and foreign collectors, but often the people who use their own hands to create these items never receive their
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