CAPE TOWN – African innovators have shown creativity and ingenuity in finding solutions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, but face legal barriers to safeguarding their intellectual property.
There have been 192 innovations directed at COVID-19 from Nigeria alone, as well as more than 90 from South Africa, it was revealed during a webinar hosted by Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, and digital platform Africa.com.
“One of the things COVID-19 has done is to underscore the importance of innovation in societies that have been viewed as lacking the intellectual capacity to deploy innovation,” said Professor Ruth L Okediji of Harvard Law School. “Many innovations in Africa lack the protection necessary to make business models scalable and meaningful.”
The webinar brought together top legal minds to discuss Law and crisis management: Working with lawyers in business, government and society to manage the challenges of COVID-19.
Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, now a partner at law firm Covington & Burling, reminded participants of his firm’s involvement in negotiating a landmark settlement between the government of Nigeria and mobile company MTN, which he said demonstrated that legal disputes on the continent could be settled timeously.
“Attorneys must step to the fore…It falls upon those of us in the private sector to fill the gaps,” Holder said.
David Wilkins, Faculty Director at the Center on the Legal Profession, started off with a brief presentation on the role of lawyers in society, reminding participants that one of the continent’s greatest freedom fighters, Nelson Mandela, had been a lawyer.
“We tend to think of lawyers as technical appliers of the law…Lawyers must also be counsellors to help clients make decisions that are not only legal but also right…Lawyers must also be leaders who play a critical role in leading key organisations,” Wilkins said.
Vincent Nmehielle, Secretary General of the African Development Bank, said the Bank supported countries with legal assistance through the African Legal Support Facility (ALSF), which provides legal advice and technical assistance in complex commercial transactions, creditor litigation and related sovereign transactions.
“For COVID-19, the work of the African Legal Support Facility could not be more apt at this time…when various African countries are not just in a public health crisis but also face legal pressure on how to holistically tackle fall-outs from the pandemic,” he said.
Bank General Counsel Godfred Penn said the institution is looking to forge partnerships in the region that could assist with the provision of personal protective equipment and medicines.
“Due to the twin exigencies of competitive advantage and the desire for selectivity in operations, the Bank Group cannot provide direct support to its borrowing countries for legal reform. The funding provided by the Bank Group to our sister organisation the African Legal Support Facility, enables them to assist countries and law firms all across Africa in this domain”, he said.