Breaking Barriers to High Impact Innovation in Uganda    

Hellen Mukasa - Lead, LegalTech Lab

In Uganda today, approximately 24 patents only have been registered by the Uganda Registration Services Bureau. An assessment conducted by Quinn and Cameron, (2013) on Innovation in Uganda found that Ugandan innovators are generating an abundance of ideas, but of those ideas, few “reach a stage of full implementation, or demonstrate scalability and self-sustainability”.  

Innovation is generally understood as the process of doing something new which improves a product or service. Innovations can be protected through Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Intellectual Property (IP) refers to the creation of minds. 

When we consider creations of the mind, we refer to new product ideas, new ways of doing things, attractive designs, distinctive business signs. In the context of our startup ecosystem, this categorizes the work done by startups at The Innovation Village for example, Tubayo. The startup created an African focused travel marketplace for travelers booking vacation homes and experiences with locals. On the other hand, creations such as music, songs, paintings and sculptures resonate with the work done by the creatives at MOTIV (Makers of The Innovation Village).  

Undoubtedly, new solutions to technological problems are the bedrock of innovation, and high impact innovations that are groundbreaking are usually commercially very successful. They can be protected through patents by ensuring that the inventor can control the commercial use of their invention. Examples of the world’s most famous and successful patents include the first telephone which was invented and patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 or the first commercially successful computer: the Apple II, which was invented by Steve Wozniak and patented by Apple Computers Inc in 1977.  

High impact innovations, if patented, offer a good return on time, effort and money invested in developing the technology. It makes a Startup more attractive to investors. The revenues generated from commercially successful patent-protected technologies make it possible to finance further technological research and development (R&D), thereby improving the chances of even better technology becoming available in the future from which society stands to benefit. 

Despite the IPR benefits, high impact innovations remain low in Uganda due to the challenges innovators face. These include financial constraints affecting time spent on innovation projects. An innovator will seek out a job that provides financial security instead of investing time on their innovation projects which takes time to breakeven.  

The example of this predicament is the Science, Technology, and Innovation students at university level who are required to do an innovative science project in their final year of school. Many students come up with brilliant innovations which are presented to only pass the course and thereafter archived in the university library because the graduates find it safer to look for a job with a steady income. 

Beyond financial constraints, there’s a skills gap in entrepreneurship which skills are critical for growth and scaling of an innovative business. The ability to identify the market opportunities, assess risks associated with the proposed solutions, development of a business plan, investment readiness, capital raising, good financial management of the pilot plan, and eventually scaling a solution can make or break a Startup. 

Unfortunately, weak enforcement of IPR is another bottleneck to successful innovation in Uganda. While this doesn’t absolve the startups of the responsibility of developing an IP management strategy, many are discouraged by not only the lack of understanding of their IP rights but also the fact that enforcement of those rights is weak especially where prevention of infringement is concerned, let alone commercialization of the IPR. 

The foregoing challenge is evidenced by the trust issues that innovators have in the process of testing their innovations. In a bid to protect their business ideas from “being stolen”, innovators keep very lean teams, and, in most cases, the team is composed of their trusted close friends as opposed to seeking top talent which can enable them to develop the idea into a successful solution. The result is often the failure to get the support required to bring the idea to fruition. 

Mentorship challenges also play a key role in affecting the ability of innovators to grow and scale their innovations. Innovations take time and the journey often involves pivoting if the initial assumptions made by the innovator are found to be unfeasible. The role of a mentor is very important because he/she offers not only expertise but also overall encouragement and connecting of the innovator to opportunities through his/her network. The unfortunate reality is that Uganda hasn’t invested in development of a pool of certified mentors for startups with varying experience levels from idea stage to deployment of the solutions. The available mentors are dispersed and can only devote very little time to each startup. 

Despite the bottlenecks, there is opportunity to improve quality of innovation in Uganda. Innovators must be encouraged to identify opportunities with the right balance of risk and reward, find the right talent to bring their ideas to life, and the right partners to support the deployment, growth and scale of their solutions. Moreso, innovative ideas should be built as much as possible with locally available materials, even better with natural resources to circumvent import restrictions and the spillover effects of importation.  

Positioning Uganda as Africa’s innovation engine requires deliberate political leadership in Science, Technology and Innovation policy and implementation. The duty bearers must play their crucial role and some of the recommendations include; 

  • Funding and catalyzing University knowledge and technology transfer partnerships with industry players. 
  • Creating deliberate incentives for local and international stage-relevant capital to boost innovators. 
  • Creating and attracting competitive grants for research and innovation to attract and enable exceptional talent. 
  • Supporting tech-driven enterprise incubation and acceleration programs through a National Startup Act. 
  • Eliminating Non-tariff Barriers to Risky Early-stage Innovation to enable nascent innovations to thrive. 
  • Incentivizing corporate investment into Research & Development in Universities and startups. 

Uganda’s progress as an innovation achiever under the Global Innovation Index (GII) indicates that it consistently outperformed many low-income countries, ranking 106th in 2011, 117th in 2012, 89th in 2013, and 91st in 2014. With the right interventions, this progress can further improve to bring innovation in Uganda to the top rank just like it is with its entrepreneurship ranking worldwide. 

Authored by

Hellen Mukasa, LegalTech Lab Lead at the Innovation Village

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