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In June 2014, the 23rd Ordinary Session of the Summit of the African Union (AU) adopted a Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024). The strategy pegs science, technology and innovation as enablers for achieving continental development goals and is part of a long-ranging plan to accelerate Africa’s shift to an innovation-led, knowledge-based economy.

“It is our deep conviction that STISA-2024 will contribute to the Africa we want, through a strong political will and trust in the intellectual capacity of the sons and daughters of the continent,” Dr. Martial De-Paul Ikounga, Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology, for the Africa Union Commission wrote last summer.

Before Africa builds what it hopes will be a new beacon of invention and discovery, it is worth assessing the foundation from which the leaders are working. To do that, Thomson Reuters analysts used the Web of Science, InCites, Derwent World Patents Index and SAEGIS databases to evaluate the landscape of the research community in Africa. The analysis found that Africa has been doing some deeply impactful scientific work, and – while the continent’s patenting has been lagging behind – there is reason to believe that Africa’s push to become a major player in the global innovation race is more than just a slogan.

Resources Force Production North and South

Output of scientific research publications from Africa has more than doubled in the past 10 years, with the vast majority of new publications coming from the northern and southern regions of the continent. The north (40 percent) and the south (29 percent) account for roughly three quarters of Africa’s total research output.

Figure 1: Share of Africa’s research papers by sub-region (2005 – 2014)
(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Web of Science)

These figures emphasize the inequalities in regional wealth and research funding on the continent, a theme that carries over when the research figures are broken down by country.

Figure 2: Top 12 most productive African countries in the last 5 years (2010 – 2014)
(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Web of Science)

South Africa, which published 50,696 research papers between 2010 and 2014, represents over 96 percent of the Southern region’s output, due to its larger economy.  In contrast, Botswana, which is in second place in the southern region, ranks 21st overall in Africa with just 1,106 papers for the same period.  North African countries show far less intra-regional difference, with four countries:  Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco ranking in the top six research producers by total output.

Trademarks – A Harbinger of Brand Expansion in Africa

Trademarks have been another key indicator of Africa’s potential to meet the goals laid out in the STISA-24 campaign.  While scientific literature citations provide insight into the R&D underpinnings of an economy, trademark filings offer perspective into the commercial viability of a particular region, both from outside brands looking to stake a claim in a new market and from those within a particular market looking to harness the growth of a consumer base.  Worldwide, we’ve seen a trend toward big, multinational brands beating a path to emerging markets as the next frontiers for consumer growth. Evidence of this exists in the most recent trends in global trademark filing, with China, Taiwan, Mexico, India, South Korea and Brazil all logging double-digit year-over-year growth in 2014. Could Africa be next? Potentially.

Currently, trademark activity in Africa is dominated by the continent’s larger economies. South Africa, for example, filed over 100,000 trademarks between 2010 and 2014. That makes sense, as the country’s larger economy attracts foreign multinationals looking to capitalize on the next emerging market.

The x-factor in future trademark growth, however, could come in the form of economic collaboration. Five Eastern African nations, led by Mozambique, exhibit a greater level of industry collaboration than the other regions, as Figure 3 indicates. This implies that, while a country like Mozambique has filed less than 10,000 trademarks, a boost could be coming in the future with a significant backing from industry partners who have taken a collaborative interest in research papers emanating from the region.

Figure 3: Trademarks filed by country (2010-2014)
(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters SAEGIS and Thomson Reuters Web of Science)

Patents Lag Behind

While scientific research and trademark activity are showing robust volumes in the region, just eight African countries logged patent activity in the five-year period between 2009 and 2013. South Africa’s big corporations helped that country take a dominant lead over the other African patent filers, uncovering a potential weakness in Africa’s ambition to capitalize on the trend toward increased innovation on the continent.

Country Patents
South Africa 3,368
Morocco 134
Egypt 93
Tunisia 26
Kenya 23
Algeria 19
Namibia 8
Nigeria 6

Figure 4: Patented inventions by country (2009 – 2013)
(SOURCE: Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index)

Africa’s leaders are envisioning the continent as a burgeoning new hub for scientific growth, which they hope will foster a more robust economy, and, ultimately, a better way of life. While there’s certainly work to be done, a collective push to rally around the central elements of these strategies can be successful, as Africa boasts some promising indicators in the scientific research and trademark categories.

Based on our analysis of the underlying indicators of innovation, Africa is poised for substantial growth, but will need to address the stark contrast that currently exists in the research and commercial footprints of its largely undeveloped Western and Middle regions. With roughly three quarters of Africa’s total research output concentrated in the northern and southern regions, efforts will need to focus on continued academic and corporate research collaboration that support the needs and strengths of the entire continent.