Navigating IP rights for business success in Africa


 Africa is a continent of growth and opportunity, with the African Development Bank forecasting a steady increase in the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP) from 3.8% in 2024 to 4.2% in 2025, higher than projected averages for the rest of the world. In addition, the United Nations predicts a rise in the middle-class population in Africa to more than 40% of the total population by 2060. As the second fastest-growing economy after Asia, and the predicted population growth, Africa offers a promising market for business globally.

IP in Africa – a complex business

Having an Intellectual Property (IP) strategy in Africa is essential to align your business goals with the complex landscape of IP laws and enforcement mechanisms across the different countries. While initiatives like the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) aim to streamline trade and legal frameworks, complexities and nuances persist. IP is territorial in nature. Although there are some regional arrangements which facilitate the filing and grant of IP rights, there is no “global” or “African” IP right. As a result, businesses operating in Africa must seek registration of their patents, trade marks and designs in every country where they operate.

The past 10 years have seen an explosion of interest in Africa’s potential as a business destination. Some countries on the continent have seen a significant increase in the number of patent and trade mark filings emanating from both foreign businesses as well as local entities keen to protect their place in the market. Many countries have had to make improvements to their IP systems to cater for the increased interest and to ensure that they are poised to support businesses wishing to protect their IP rights as they expand their business operations.

That said, despite improvements in many countries, the myriad of systems, languages and regulatory frameworks, coupled with the difficulty of accessing reliable and accurate information, presents unique challenges for businesses wishing to expand their operations into Africa.

In recognition of these complexities, and to assist with the registration and management of IP rights in Africa, two regional IP systems have been established. The Organisation for African Intellectual Property (OAPI), which covers 17 countries from mainly West and Central Africa, and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organisation (ARIPO) which has a membership of 22 country member states. These regional IP systems are hubs of excellence. They are well resourced, provide centralized IP resources and assist in capacity building efforts for their member states. Importantly, however, the countries with the three largest economies in Africa - namely South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt are not members of either organization and IP rights must be obtained nationally for businesses wishing to protect their IP in these countries.

Significant progress has been made through these regional systems, ensuring compliance with international treaties and harmonization with international standards. Efforts have also been made to digitise and properly maintain the records of the IP offices and several judgments have recently been
handed down showing progress and dedication to IP holders wishing to enforce their IP rights successfully in Africa.

This is particularly encouraging considering that there have been an increase in instances where trade mark “squatters” exploit foreign trade mark owners by registering domain names or trade marks, incorporating or consisting of well-known trade marks, hindering legitimate trade mark owners from entering African markets.

Protecting IP rights for business success

To safeguard IP rights effectively in Africa, businesses should adopt a strategic and tiered approach. This includes identifying key jurisdictions where they operate or have commercial interests and prioritising the protection of their IP in those countries.

A key step in this process is registering trade marks and, if applicable, patents and other forms or IP like designs and plant breeders rights. Formal registration of rights is recommended as it provides stronger protection and facilitates enforcement. Businesses should also consider factors such as the duration of registration processes, special requirements in each jurisdiction, associated costs, as well other considerations such as licensing and regulatory approvals that may be required.

Proactive enforcement of IP rights, including anti-counterfeiting measures, an effective watching / monitoring service and policing of IP rights, are crucial for maintaining an effective IP management approach.

Collaboration with legal experts who not only understand the local IP landscape in Africa, but who are experts in assisting businesses to realise their business aspirations in Africa, is vital for businesses operating or intending to operate in Africa. By navigating the complexities of IP laws in Africa, and leveraging Africa's potential, businesses can secure their place in the evolving market and drive prosperity on the continent.

Paid Content