Regulation & Innovation in Africa: A licence to innovate?

Our popular Innovation & Antitrust series continues on its popular path to its 3rd installment, in which its author, Ass’t Professor Sofia Ranchordas, deals with regulation.  Prior pieces included the topics of ‘convergence or customization?’ and the deeply inquisitive ‘in the eye of the beholder…?’  The series continues.

Regulation and Innovation in Africa: licence to innovate?

 new multi-part series

Ass’t Prof. Sofia Ranchordás (Tilburg Univ. Law School)

In part II of the African Antitrust Innovation Series, Sofia Ranchordás discussed the relevant concept of ‘innovation’ underlying the discourse on innovation/competition/IP in African countries.  She concluded that in the African context, the advancement of economic growth may imply adopting a context-specific concept of ‘innovation’, where more attention is paid to incremental improvements performed by local innovators. Before analyzing whether competition laws can play a role in the advancement of innovation in the African context, it is important to take two steps back in this third part of the Innovation and Antitrust Series and:

(i) Analyze the African innovation policy context and its challenges;

(ii) Question whether regulation can and should play a role in the advancement of innovation.

(i) Wanted: Innovation in Africa

Up until recently, COMESA did not adopt an interventionist approach towards innovation in its member states, however it was expected that African governments would devote at least one per cent of GDP to R&D. Year after year, member states failed to achieve this objective and COMESA soon realized that in Africa only the South African government (ironically, a non-member) was in state to successfully pursue such goal. In 2012, the COMESA Committee of Ministers of Science and Technology recommended the creation of an Innovation Council and setting up an Innovation Fund, promoting efforts to harmonize intellectual property rights, and continued infrastructure development to facilitate regional trade. The creation of the COMESA Innovation Council in April 2013 evidenced a clear awareness of the importance of enhanced technological innovation for the competitiveness of African countries. This council was conceived mainly ‘to provide advice to member states relating to existing and new knowledge and innovations and best ways of applying it in the member states’.[1] The COMESA Innovation Council departed from the premise that the late adoption of technological innovation would be an advantage for cost effective developments due to the limited negative effects. Besides COMESA, other organizations have been supporting African countries investment in R&D. This is the case of UNESCO which has been coordinating the UN Science & Technology cluster and the African Union through the African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation (AOSTI).[2]

While an Innovation Council is much needed in Africa, the question that needs to be posed here is whether these countries really know what it takes to effectively promote innovation. Are African governments enacting the most adequate rules to foster investment and terminating the dispositions that contribute to the innovation chasm that characterizes a number of African countries?

While national governments have been trying to develop their own innovation policies and programmes, it has also been argued that innovation in Africa faces a significant hurdle:  donor nations are the ones setting the tone. Perhaps to ensure that African governments are able to define their own innovation priorities, the COMESA Innovation Council is solely composed by eminent scientists of member countries. However, this may not be enough. In the 2013 African Economic Outlook report,[3] it was underlined that despite Africa’s ‘impressive growth over the past fifteen years (…) institutions and regulations for private sector activity must be further improved. Addressing infrastructure bottlenecks increasing access to key public services (…) would put countries on a durable high growth path and reduce poverty and inequality’.[4] In the specific case of extractive-resource exploration and exploitation, this report explicitly states that more regulations that provide incentives for investment are needed. The 2009 African Economic Outlook had earlier verified that the ineffective African regulatory systems were one of the reasons why African was seriously lagging behind. This 2009 report concluded that ‘African regulators need more muscle’ and particular attention should be paid to telecoms regulators who tend ‘too often favor incumbent fixed-line operators, who have typically problems to make profits, over new entrants (…) [impeding] competition and private investment.’[5]

Willingness to innovate, investment and know-how are certainly essential elements of innovation, but any policy initiatives may be jeopardized by an ineffective regulatory framework. Stating that African regulatory systems must be improved seems to be stating almost the obvious. Explaining why may actually shed more light on how this should be done.  Does regulation really matter for innovation?

(ii) Innovation: law gives, and law may take it away

National laws and regulations can act as ‘licences to innovate’. But they can equally be regarded as obstacles to innovation, should they be excessive, costly and/or cause regulatory delays. Regulation and innovation can either be ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. Regulators can hinder it by imposing too many regulatory requirements with which companies must comply; or instead, facilitate it by providing a rapid and flexible regulation of innovations, and ensuring that novelties are quickly introduced in the market. The mentioned destinies depend notably on how well lawmakers know the nature and dynamics of the innovation process.[6] The relationship between law and regulations and innovation has often been underestimated in the literature and the study of the impact of the former on the latter is often vaguely justified and not supported by empirical evidence.[7] However, this is far from being an unimportant topic: regulation can impede or even facilitate innovation, depending on the type, timing, duration and the dispositions in question.

Regulation as a ‘foe’ to innovation

Legislative or regulatory instruments have been traditionally regarded as obstacles to innovation: the bureaucratic impositions of law are quickly accused of stifling creativity and commercial success, contributing to the image of ‘law as the bogeyman’.[8] This is explained, for example, by the multiple regulatory burdens imposed by regulators that often outweigh the harms they intended to prevent. High compliance costs may have a negative impact on investment, particularly in the case of smaller innovators with more limited capital. In addition, regulation has been regarded as an impediment to innovation because ‘entrepreneurs and government regulators see the world quite differently’: while the first see flexibility and risk as parts of the business, regulators are often risk-averse, preferring stability and long-term predictable outcomes.[9]  Moreover, the lack of experience with the private sector, the growing bureaucracy and entrenchment in agencies led to the enactment of stricter regulation aimed to avoid future problems. This need to regulate the unpredictable generated uncertainty, conflicting regulations, and had counterproductive effects, since the very same rules which aimed at stimulating innovation ended up frustrating it. [10]

Although excessive regulation may stifle regulation, innovation cannot be left unregulated. Innovative products can potentially endanger a number of significant social and economic values (e.g. public health, environment, or fair competition). The regulation of innovation should perform multiple tasks: regulate the risks inherent to novel products and services; ensure that innovators do not innovate beyond and against law; facilitate and even promote the development and implementation of innovations, by creating a legal order adapted or adaptable to the characteristics of the innovation process.[11]

Regulation as a ‘friend’ to innovation

Regulators all over the world are aware of the importance of innovation for a country’s competitiveness and have tried to actively encourage firms to innovate. This was visible in the well-known case of the U.S. Department of Justice’s command on Microsoft to sell its Internet Explorer as a separate product from its Windows operating system.[12] This idea that authorities should actively intervene, can be indirectly derived from the ‘Porter hypothesis’,[13] according to which public authorities, and specifically competition authorities, should guarantee that market forces drive firms to innovate, notably through the implementation of stringent competition policy.[14] The concretization of legislative or administrative interventions in this field does not always need or can be reduced to an aggressive implementation of competition law.[15] Innovation is essential to increase the competitiveness of firms, but the regulation of the former goes beyond competition concerns and requires a comprehensive regulatory approach.

Legal rules do not necessarily stifle innovation, by discouraging entrepreneurs from investing in R&D. Instead, regulation can equally assume a paternalist role and have a positive effect on behavior—as argued by behavioral law and economics scholars—and ultimately influence (‘nudge’) entrepreneurs to make the desired investing decisions.  The general impact of legislation and regulation on human behavior has been studied in the last decades by the behavioral law and economics literature.[16] A behavioral approach to law and economics proceeds to a study of legal rules informed by knowledge about human behavior and attempts to discover how law can be used to achieve particular ends. Behavioral law and economics aims to ‘regulate so as to improve economic welfare by more closely aligning each individual’s actual choices with his “true” or unbiased preferences without reducing his liberty.’[17] There are reasons to believe that this behavioral approach has been shaping policy and rulemaking in the United States, notably under the Obama Administration,[18] which has been particularly interventionist as far as the advancement of innovation is concerned.[19] If this interventionist approach has been successfully implemented in different countries, one can and should ask whether African governments should not also try to ‘nudge’ innovation, exempting innovators from complying with unnecessary burdens, providing better legal protection to investments, and improving the overall transparency of its legal system.

(iii) A regulatory recipe for more innovation

The role played by regulation in the advancement of innovation deserves more attention from most African countries and international organizations operating in this continent. Governmental innovation policies and the regulation of innovation should be elected as priority concerns in the quest for more innovation. [20] African governments could try to combat the innovation chasm that characterizes their systems if they create ‘innovation-friendly’ regulatory frameworks that make their legal systems attractive to investors and innovators. I leave you with a draft of a partial recipe to this ‘friendship’:

1. A solid legal and procedural framework, characterized by transparent and accountable regulatory authorization procedures;

2. Bonuses and prizes for innovators;

3. Innovation waivers,[21] i.e., regulation can facilitate innovation, notably by granting entrepreneurs exemptions from complying with certain rules as long as these companies substantially invest in R&D or authorizing companies to develop certain activities without further requirements;

4. Tax credits for companies investing in R& D projects and cooperating with local universities;

5. Subsidies to R&D projects partially financed by international organizations;

6. Termination of unnecessary regulatory burdens by inserting sunset dispositions in a number of regulations regarding innovative fields;

7. Attractive start-up visa regulations for innovators with concrete business plans involving local natural or human resources that may result in the creation of jobs;

8. Development of clear competition policies and better enforcement of competition laws. This last suggestion shall be further developed in part IV of the Innovation & Antitrust Series.

FOOTNOTES:


[1] Press release of the Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda, April 12th, 2013, available at http://www.opm.go.ug/news-archive/comesa-innovation-council-inaugurated.html

[2] See African Observatory of Science, Technology and Innovation, Assessing Best Practices of Science, Technology and Innovation, AOSTI Working Papers, No.1 (African Union 2013), available at http://aosti.org/index.php/working-papers/finish/6-working-papers/9-aosti-workingpapers1-executivesummary/0

[3] The African Economic Outlook is an initiative funded by a number of international organizations, including the African Devepment Bank Group, the OECD, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the UN Development Programme for Africa. For more information, see http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/en/

[4] African Economic Outlook 2013, Special theme: Structural Transformation and Natural Resources, pocket edition, available at http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/fileadmin/uploads/aeo/PDF/Pocket%20Edition%20AEO2013-EN.web.pdf

[5] See African Economic Outlook 2009, summary available at http://www.africaneconomicoutlook.org/en/in-depth/ict-africa/

[6] For an interesting overview of the dynamics of innovation throughout time, see François Caron, Dynamics of Innovation: The Expansion of Technology in Modern Times (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013)

[7] This concern is far from being a recent one, see Wesley A. Magat, ‘The effects of Environmental Regulation on Innovation’ (1979) 43 Law & Contemporary Problems 4.

[8] Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, Rechtswissenschaftliche Innovationsforschung als Reaktion auf gesellschaftlichen Innovationsbedarf, Überarbeite Fassung eines Vortrages aus Anlass der Überreichung der Universitätsmedaille am 19.12.2000 in Hamburg, available at <http://www2.jura.uni-hamburg.de/ceri/publ/download01.PDF>.

[9] James T. O’Reilly, ‘Entrepreneurs and Regulators: Internet Technology, Agency Estoppel, and the Balance of Trust’ (2000) 10 Cornell Journal of Law & Public Policy 63.

[10] Aryeh S. Friedman, ‘Law and the Innovative Process: Preliminary Reflections’ (1986) Columbia Business Law Review 1.

[11] Robert Cooter, Aaron Edlin, Robert E. Litan, George L. Priest, ‘The importance of law in promoting innovation and growth’ in The Kauffman Task Force on Law, Innovation and Growth, Rules for Growth (Kauffman 2011) 6.

[12] Lawrence B. Landman, ‘Competitiveness, Innovation Policy, and the Innovation Market Myth: A Reply to Tom and Newberg on Innovation Markets as the “Centerpiece” of “New Thinking” on Innovation’ (1998) 13 Saint John’s Journal of Legal Commentary 223.

[13] Michael Porter, ‘The Competitive Advantage of Nations’ (1990) Harvard Business Law Review April-March 75.

[14]For a critical perspective on the Porter’s hypothesis, see Lawrence B. Landman, ‘Competitiveness, Innovation Policy, and the Innovation Market Myth: A Reply to Tom and Newberg on Innovation Markets as the “Centerpiece” of “New Thinking” on Innovation’ (1998) 13 Saint John’s Journal of Legal Commentary 223, 231-232.

[15] This topic shall be thoroughly analyzed in part IV of Innovation & Antitrust Series.

[16]For an overview, see Christine Jolls, Cass R. Sunstein, Richard Thaler, ‘A Behavioral Approach to Law and Economics’ (1998) 50 Stanford Law Review 1471.

[17] Joshua D. Wright, Douglas H. Ginsburg, ‘Behavioral Law and Economics: Its Origins, Fatal Flaws, and Implications for Liberty’ (2012) 106 Northwestern University Law Review 1033.

[18] Joshua D. Wright, Douglas H. Ginsburg, ‘Behavioral Law and Economics: Its Origins, Fatal Flaws, and Implications for Liberty’ (2012) 106 Northwestern University Law Review 1033, 1053.

[19] See the September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, combining a number of programs focused on the promotion of innovation and Obama’s speech, available at Speech of Barack Obama, August 5, 2009, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/Spurring-Innovation-Creating-Jobs. A Strategy for American Innovation: Driving Towards Sustainable Growth and Quality Jobs, White Paper, 2009, available <http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/nec/StrategyforAmericanInnovation>

[20] Stuart Minor Benjamin, Arti K. Rai, ‘Fixing Innovation Policy: a Structural Perspective’ (2008) 77 George Washington Law Review 1.

[21] Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, ‘Rechtswissenschaftliche Innovationsforschung als Reaktion auf gesellschaftlichen Innovationsbedarf’, Überarbeite Fassung eines Vortrages aus Anlass der Überreichung der Universitätsmedaille am 19.12.2000 in Hamburg, available at <http://www2.jura.uni-hamburg.de/ceri/publ/download01.PDF>.

Advertisements

COMESA Competition Commission web site hacked?

Attack shows risk of unauthorized disclosure of confidential commercial party information

COMESA site hacked with Indonesian love poem

COMESA site hacked with Indonesian love poem

It would appear that the young pan-African antitrust enforcement agency’s web site has been hacked.  The headline on the COMESA Competition Commission’s (“CCC”) home page today seems to indicate a relationship with a web site bearing the Indonesian TLD (top-level domain) “.ID”, and looks like gibberish at first glance.

Then, after some digging, AAT’s editors believed that it might in fact be a tribute or memorial of sorts to the missing crew and passengers of flight MH 370, given the Indonesian language of the text and the disappearance of the jetliner in the Viet-Indo-Malaysian region’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.  The relationship with COMESA escaped us, however.  Yet, upon a final review of the Google Translate result, we can confirm that this is unfortunately not the case.  Instead, it appears to be a (fairly amateurish) love poem (full text in GoogleTranslate’s English below).

With all this wind-up, here comes the real point in the story.  We perceive this hacking event as evidence of a real risk that highly confidential party information (stemming from COMESA merger reviews or other competition investigations) may be vulnerable to accidental or intentional disclosure to unauthorized third parties.  In the United States, the agencies’ unwarranted disclosure of confidential data took center stage in the 2007 aftermath of the $1/2 billion Whole Foods / Wild Oats merger, during which the FTC had accidentally submitted an insufficiently redacted PDF document to the electronic U.S. court filing system ECF, spilling the secret data guts of the case. The Washington Post reported on the story here — just as we are now alerting current or potential future parties to CCC merger reviews regarding the apparently deficient safeguards in the competition enforcer’s electronic systems.  We advise all such interested parties to enquire with the Competition Commission precisely which steps are being taken to ensure the safety of their confidential submissions to the agency.

We also note that the CCC’s site has a very publicly visible page for access to “PRIVATE” documents, protected only by (it would seem) a most simple username/password combination.  The site even allows for a cookie-based “Remember Me” function.  The privacy risks here are manifold, as any e-security expert worth her salt can attest to: Should this “private” document repository contain confidential party information, and if the main home page of the agency has already been subject to a (successful) attack, it is no stretch to imagine that access may have equally been gained to the purportedly private document storage folder on the site.

AAT has contacted the CCC’s web master and leadership, Messrs. George Lipimile and Willard Mwemba, to inquire further about the details of this apparent safety breach.  We will report on their response here once we have heard back from them.

Should readers have any other information on the goings-on at the CCC or its web site, we always appreciate hearing from you, either by way of e-mail or in the comments section to this article.

Full text of COMESA site as of 17. March 2014 (all day) – (update 18. March: the text is still up on the site at 16:40 GMT):

Andika curhatan Dot ID

This heart is sick when you kianati
This heart is fragile when you leave
But this heart grateful you have introduced the meaning of a broken heart

I can still smile while getting bad grades
I can still smile when dropped
But I would not be smiling if it can not meet you

You introduced me to a love
But you were also introduced me to breakup

I’ve never know a woman like you
I also have never loved a woman like you
And I’ve never felt hurt because of you

None other than the beautiful scenery seen
None other than the beautiful singing heard
And no one has to know you regret

This heart will smile with you when both
And this will be a pensive moment waiting to hear from you

Worrying trends in South African merger control – Government’s abuse of process continues unabated

south_africa

Secret deals sideline competition authorities

In what can only be described as a significant step backwards in ensuring that the more established of the emerging economies enforce the application of sound and established (e.g., ICN) best practices in relation to merger remedies, AAT has discovered that the much publicised acquisition of South Africa’s AFGRI by international private investment group AgriGroupe has recently been subjected to a private side deal between the South African Government and the merging parties, sidestepping the Commission’s jurisdiction and decision-making competence.  According to its terms, Afgri is obligated to make available R90 million (US$9m, over four years) to certain South African farmers & enrol emerging farmers in development programmes and assist poultry farmers.

Minister’s side deal replaces Competition Act merger remedies

There is little doubt that these forced conditions constitute matters best handled by the relevant antitrust regulator as proper remedies in a merger-control proceeding. At the outer limit, relevant departments such as the Department of Water, Forestry and Fisheries might have input into them.  Yet, it appears that these conditions are purely negotiated by the Minister of Economic Development – the same office that sacked the prior chairman of the Competition Commission, Shan Ramburuth, and which has been subjected to criticism of meddling in the independent authority’s affairs.

Minister Patel

Following the questionable intervention of various South African Government departments in Walmart’s acquisition of Massmart (which is, as we have previously noted, the origin of the non-competition merger remedies), it appears that the same departments have in effect sought to force the merging parties into agreeing to perform services on behalf of the Government in exchange for the departments’ non-intervention before the Competition Tribunal proceedings.

Following a pattern…

Heather Irvine, counsel for the merging parties, confirmed that the “merger was approved (with the agreement as a condition) after the Tribunal hearing yesterday.”  She points out that “this agreement was voluntarily entered into by the merging parties in a spirit of goodwill and as a demonstration of Afgri’s commitment to growing the African food sector, not because of concerns about any public interest issues in terms of the Competition Act,” pointing to the transcript to be made available shortly.  We appreciate counsel’s confirmation that the side agreement was reached entirely outside the confines of the SA Competition Act between the ministry and the parties.

It is apparent that since Minister Patel has assumed his role as Minister of Economic Development (an “activist, interventionist and micromanaging minister,” according to the former Competition Tribunal chairman David Lewis), the competition authorities’ independence has been undermined (see some of our prior articles here and here).   In particular, the merger process is little more than a means by which the South African Government seeks to extract from merging parties a series of additional unwarranted (industrial policy) conditions. It is in our view a highly problematic development.  In sum, the S.A. merger review process remains a highly contentious issue and while the parties in this case sought to placate Government, others may not be as willing.

Telecom adversaries to remain “principled” in their competing bids for 4G spectrum

south_africa

The telecoms are at it again, and MTN and Vodacom find themselves close together once more.  Last October, we reported on their being jointly targeted by competitor Cell C for predatory “on-net” pricing.  Today, the two top market players are both eyeing additional spectrum for high-speed LTE/4G wireless service — an asset that can potentially be obtained much more swiftly by acquiring an existing firm owning such spectrum, rather than ex ante licensing or bidding at public auction for frequency band… At the moment, Vodacom is attempting a 100% share acquisition of smaller rival Neotel — a deal that might include valuable frequency.

In a South African Tech Central report, MTN’s group CEO is quoted as saying that he would refrain from “automatically” challenging any such acquisition by his main rival:

Asked if MTN would object to a deal between Vodacom and Neotel at the Competition Commission, MTN Group CEO Sifiso Dabengwa said that the operator would not automatically do so. “The issue here is you can’t take a position because of where you are [in the market],” he said. “It has to be principled, no matter which side you’re on.”

It does not take a clairvoyant to see what is behind MTN’s self-imposed restraint: equal hunger for additional spectrum – and acquisitions – which it does not want to stifle by raising rash arguments of anti-competitive effects of the Vodacom/Neotel deal…

SA Commission appoints mergers head; claims roster of “core” positions now filled

New head of mergers fills final “core” position according to Bonakele; replaces Ramburuth-appointed predecessor

Source: LinkedIn

New head of mergers at SA Competition Commission (Source: LinkedIn)

Following the by now fairly predictable fault lines of the Ramburuth-vs.-[others] staffing game at the Competition Commission, the agency’s crucial Mergers & Acquisitions division now also has a new head.  As of March 1, Hardin Ratshisusu is filling the post of Divisional Manager, after his predecessor Ibrahim Bah‘s departure in December last year created a three-month hiatus.

Bah, having worked at the Irish antitrust regulator for a while*, had been with the South African authority on-and-off since 2008, but had been Divisional Manager only for less than a year, holding the post since January 2013.  His successor Ratshisusu is likewise a former M&A veteran of the agency, having begun his career at the Commission as early as 2004 and with the division since December 2007 as a Senior Merger Analyst.  He also has recent private-practice experience outside government, which we view as a welcome feature on his C.V., in addition to his historical M&A expertise.

Mr. Ratshisusu’s self-description on his LinkedIn profile (with 22 endorsements from others as to M&A) is as follows:

“In the formative years, I started off as an enumerator for SA’s 2001 Census and then a research assistant at the University of Venda, whilst doing my post-graduate studies. I have since worked in the regulatory environment having held various positions at the Competition Commission of South Africa including being Senior Merger Analyst, Acting Divisional Manager of the Mergers and Acquisitions Division and Technical Consultant/Adviser to the Deputy Commissioner. I also had a stint in the economic regulatory division of Neotel (Pty) Ltd. This has given me exposure to a number of industries, including, construction, telecommunications, broadcasting, mining, chemicals, retailing and property. I now have expertise, garnered at both operation and strategic levels, in competition and regulatory economics, strategy, and governance.”

Mr. Ratshisusu’s appointment comes at a time of staffing difficulties at the authority, including most recently the departure of a senior Deputy Commissioner.   In its official release, the Commission’s Acting Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele is quoted as emphasizing the agency’s focus on getting past its recent personnel woes:

“I am pleased that we have now completed the task of filling all vacancies for the heads of the Commission’s core divisions. This will allow us to focus on fulfilling our strategic priorities”

We take it that any remaining open seats on the Commission’s org chart are, by logical inference, to be deemed “non-core” to the functioning of the agency.

The Acting Commissioner: Focusing on

The Acting Commissioner: Focusing on “strategic priorities”, such as the healthcare inquiry and other enforcement

* Mr. Bah co-authored an amusingly-titled mergers paper while at the Irish Competition Authority: “The Curious Tale of Pigs, Papers and Peru: Media Mergers in Ireland“.  It should not come as a surprise that AfricanAntitrust.com’s editors have a faible for anything that contains alliterations…

south_africa

Antitrust & Innovation series, part II: “Innovation: in the eye of the beholder?”

Two weeks ago, assistant Professor of Law (Tilburg Univ.) Sofia Ranchordas gave us a first glimpse into Innovation & Antitrust – a hot topic especially in the developing BRICS economies – in the opening salvo of her ongoing series of posts on the issue.

By: Sofia Ranchordás (Tilburg Univ. Law School)

new multi-part series

A multi-part series on Innovation & Antitrust

‘Innovation’: is it in the eye of the beholder?

In my first short working paper (‘Innovation, competition and IP in developing countries: convergence or customization?’) I questioned whether the globalization of competition and IP laws was pushing developing countries in the sense of convergence, and whether this tendency was beneficial for these countries’ quest for innovation. I also posed five guiding questions and invited the reader to think about the trichotomy ‘innovation/IP/competition laws’ in the context of developing countries. This second post addresses the first question and the point of departure of this analysis:

What is innovation?

A mere definition of ‘innovation’ does not provide a satisfactory answer to this question. Therefore, I will also discuss a number of topics and try to provoke further discussion on (i) the concept of innovation, (ii) the context-specificity of the concept; (iii) and some key drivers of innovation in developing countries.

Let’s ‘begin at the beginning’ and ‘go till we come to the end:[1] the ‘innovation’ that should be stimulated or safeguarded by competition or IP laws (or both) in African countries.

(i) Innovation: what’s in a name?

In the legal literature, ‘innovation’ is often imprecisely associated with the development of ‘something significantly new’: [2] what ‘does something new’ mean? New to whom? How new is new enough? ‘Innovation’ should be distinguished from ‘invention’: the conception of a new idea, a discovery or a unique finding. [3] A genius idea or a cutting-edge invention cannot be automatically qualified as ‘innovations’ before they are introduced in the marketplace. In simple terms, innovation is the ‘process of putting ideas into useful form and bringing them to the market’.[4] The innovator is the one that successfully manages to successfully concretize an idea, commercialize it, or in the case of social innovation, externalize it to society. The innovative ideas included in the concept of ‘innovation’ refer to new products, processes, services and public policies, which may have either a commercial goal or simply an altruistic aim to solve social problems. The core element of the concept of ‘innovation’ I would like to point out is therefore (a) the successful externalization and concretization of ideas. However,  an innovation must also be the (b) first concretization of these ideas.

(ii) Innovation: a context-specific concept?

How can we measure the newness element of innovation? Must this be the first externalization ever of a new idea translated into the commercialization of a new product? From an IP rationale, the answer would be yes: the first ever. However, we should ask ourselves whether this makes sense in Africa. Is the concept of ‘innovation’ context-specific? Is it in the ‘eye of the beholder’? Can we really expect poor countries to develop cutting-edge technology while their R&D spending is limited? We surely want to stimulate and safeguard the same type of innovation present in developed countries, but from a policy point of view, is this realistic?

 Innovation as a relative concept?  According to Srinivas/Schutz, innovation is contextual/sector-specific, i.e., innovation depends on the socioeconomic conditions it is embedded in and should therefore ‘meet the needs of the most people, especially in countries where innovation and poverty reside side by side’.[5] If we reflect upon this topic from the perspective of the stimulation and diffusion of the ‘innovation spirit’ and good innovation policies to African countries, we might want to adopt a less strict concept of innovation and content ourselves with a relative concept of innovation for these developing countries.

Inspired in the literature on policy diffusion, we might perhaps want to perceive innovation here as something that ‘it is new to the states adopting it, no matter how old the program may be or how many other states have adopted it’.[6] The facilitation of innovation in a different context might still pose important challenges to a developing country even if it has been implemented elsewhere. According to this perspective, the ‘newness’ of the innovation in question is not assessed in absolute terms but related to the experience and knowledge of the jurisdiction in question. This may mean that African innovators are allowed to stand in the shoulders of other innovators, ‘imitate them’ (?) and concretize their ideas within a circumscribed territory. This is perhaps easily applicable to innovative programs or policies, but should African countries not be stimulated to develop innovative products with their own resources and adapted to their local characteristics, even if they are similar to existing products in developed countries? (Potential IP concerns shall be discussed a few weeks in one of my next posts) While this less ambitious perspective of innovation takes into account the socioeconomic conditions of developing countries, it almost goes against the globalization trend that is fighting for convergences of laws and policies. In addition, a relative concept of innovation opens the door to free-riding and may not give incentives to the development of truly innovative products and processes.

Leaving IP and other legal concerns aside for now, I would like to introduce briefly some of the relevant incentives or favorable conditions to the emergence of innovation.

(iii) The drivers of innovation

Ashford/Hall argue that innovation is determined by three decisive factors that should be present at the firm and governmental levels: (a) willingness to innovate; (b) opportunity/motivation to do so; and (c) capacity to innovate.[7] I would like to mention an additional external driver: competition.

(a) Willingness to innovate refers to how firms and individuals perceive changes in production, understand technological or social problems, develop and assess alternative solutions for it. While this ambition may easily be found in developed countries, underdevelopment, limited capacity of higher education, and profound scarcity may affect this willingness to innovate.

(b) Opportunity and (c) capacity to innovation are influenced by external factors, including the regulatory conditions faced by firms. Ashford has claimed that regulation, by taking these elements into account, can create ‘an atmosphere conducive to innovation’.[8] Innovators in African countries face however here significant hurdles. Although governments are aware of the need to enhance their R&D spending, they still have not been able to find the adequate mix of regulatory instruments that can create a sound regulatory environment for innovation.[9]

(d) Competition: in simplistic terms, it is often argued that competition drives innovators because companies feel, on the one hand, the pressure to be more cost-efficient notably through the development of innovative production processes; on the other, to stand out of the crowd of competitors, differentiating their products from the existing ones and offering consumers innovative and better products. Innovative companies are those that leave their comfort zone and strive for better products and processes. However, leaving your comfort zone implies taking risks that developing countries might not be willing to embrace. Although ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, innovators in African countries might need a helping hand from their governments to solve the ‘innovation chasm’ that often characterizes them.[10] This ‘innovation chasm’ is currently affecting these last three drivers of innovation. Can law—particularly Antitrust & Competition laws—play a role here? Can laws provide wings to African innovators to fly in the direction of innovation? Or will innovators feel prisoned and palsied by these giant wings?[11]

This discussion will continue in the next post of this series: in the meantime, keep reading, discussing and searching for innovation…


[1] Adapted quote from Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

[2] Stefan Müller, ‘Innovationsrecht—Konturen einer Rechtsmaterie’ (2013) 2 Innovations- und Technikrecht 58, 60.

[3] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (first published in 1939, Harper, 1942) Luke A. Stewart, ‘The Impact of Regulation on Innovation in the United States: A Cross-Industry Literature Review’, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, 2010, paper commissioned by the Institute of Medicine Committee on Patient Safety and Health IT, available at www.iom.edu, 1.

[4] Eugene Fitzgerald; Andreas Wankerl; Carl J. Schramm, Inside Real Innovation: How the Right Approach Can Move Ideas from R&D to Market and Get The Economy Moving (Kauffman Foundation, World Scientific Publishing 2011) 2.

[5] Smita Srinivas, Judith Schutz, ‘Developing Countries and Innovation: Searching for a New Analytical Approach’ (2008) 30 Technology in Society 129.

[6] Jack L. Walker, ‘The Diffusion of Innovations among the American States’ (1969) 63(3) The American Political Science Review 880, 881.

[7] Nicholas A. Ashford; Ralph P. Hall, ‘The Importance of Regulation-Induced Innovation for Sustainable Development’ (2011) 3 Sustainability 270, 279.

[8] Nicholas A. Ashford; Christine Ayers; Robert F. Stone, ‘Using Regulation to Change the Market For Innovation’ (1985) 9 Harvard Environmental Law Review419, 422.

[9] See, for exemple, the Report by the SA Department of Science and Technology, ‘A knowledge-based economy. A ten-year plan for South Africa (2008-2018)’ available at http://www.esastap.org.za/download/sa_ten_year_innovation_plan.pdf

[10] Department of Science and Technology, ‘A knowledge-based economy. A ten-year plan for South Africa (2008-2018)’ available at http://www.esastap.org.za/download/sa_ten_year_innovation_plan.pdf

[11] Inspired in the English translation of ‘L’ albatros’ by Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal), by Jacques Le Jacques LeClercq, Flowers of Evil  (Mt Vernon, NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1958). The original verse is ‘Le Poète est semblable au prince de nuées (…) ses ailes de géant l´empêchent de marcher’.

South Africa Healthcare panel- a swing to the left?

While it certainly appears that the newly appointed panel to the first ever market inquiry into the South African private healthcare sector consists of a number of members who have a strong medical background, there is a concern, however, that this is significantly skewed in favour of those who have more of a public healthcare background.

This brings into question the degree to which the inquiry will be focused more on the question of accessibility of healthcare to all citizens (An aspect for which South African government has the main responsibility) on the one hand, and the perceived inefficiencies within the private healthcare sector where members/patients pay a premium for access to the latter.

The only economist on the panel is, interestingly, not from South Africa which may bring to question his ability to effectively understand the South African private healthcare sector, how it has evolved in the last two decades, particularly given the changes observed in regulations governing the different levels of the value chain.

A clear concern will be how well the panel will appreciate any commercial arguments, which would undoubtedly be brought forward by the industry, particularly providers.  At the end of the day these are private entities which rely on investors who seek certain levels of return, often irrespective of where those returns come from.

The Competition Commission should  be able to provide some assistance, however, given the level of attrition experienced at the Commission in the last 18 months the quality of those resources remains an issue.

A second aspect is the apparent exclusion of an assessment of the public sector.  Since government is ultimately tasked with providing healthcare services to the vast majority of unemployed in South Africa, these would be the very same majority which could never afford private healthcare today.  Ignoring the public sector is tantamount to ignoring the real issue.

The panel comprises of former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo, Professor Sharon Fonn, Dr Ntuthuko Bhengu, Dr Lungiswa Nkonki and Cornelis van Gent.  A brief overview of panel members is as follows:

  • Former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo served as the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court from 2009 to 2011.
  • Professor Sharon Fonn is a medical doctor and registered public health specialist and she is currently the acting dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand.
  • Dr Nthuthuko Bhengu holds an MBChB and his most recent executive appointments have been with Metropolitan Health, Clinix Health Group and Biotech Laboratories.
  • Dr. Lungiswa Nkonki holds a PhD in health economics and is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch.
  • Cornelis van Gent is an economist with experience in competition economics, economic regulation and competition in healthcare markets.

The end of the zero-threshold contagion?

COMESA Competition Commission logo

COMESA Competition Commission‘s head of mergers foreshadows end of zero-threshold regime

Will the Commission soon find a cure to the contagion that has made the agency’s merger control the subject of heavy criticism by antitrust practitioners and and even ridicule by fellow enforcers? Willard Mwemba claims the agency has – after over a year of operating under the zero-threshold rule – “set the wheels in motion for the threshold to be raised.”  The Commission is reportedly working with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to determine what the proper notification thresholds should be.

We previously had this to say in November of last year:

[T]he dual dilemma of the “zero-threshold contagion” and the inordinately high filing fees currently affecting the CCC’s merger-control regime (and resulting in rather low merger-notification statistics of less than one per month) will continue to hamper the young agency and its customers for the foreseeable near-term future.

Depending on how swiftly the agency and its advisors at the IFC get things done – and the amendments actually get approved – it appears that our timing forecast was fairly accurate  (“COMESA merger rules to change in April 2014 at the earliest“).

S. African antitrust watchdog described as “toxic” by insider

south_africa

Trade union NEHAWU’s influence over agency staff cited as reason for departure

According to an excellent piece in the ZA Financial Mail – written by Andile Makholwa* and entitled “Competition Commission Bleeds Staff” – departing Acting Deputy Commissioner Trudi Makhaya has explained in detail her recent decision to leave the antitrust authority, describing a “toxic” work environment there since at least October 2013.  On the staffing front, Acting Commissioner Bonakele is quoted as regretting her departure, saying that “one of his priorities is to repair the fractured relations with senior managers and contain the staff exodus.” In the article, Makhaya is cited as bemoaning the increasing influence of NEHAWU (a powerful trade union) over the agency and its staff.

Ms. Makhaya (photo credit: Financial Mail)

While Ms. Makhaya has had her fair share of agit-prop P.R. published under her name (see, eg., her piece published this piece in the Daily Maverick, entitledThe temptations of neo-volkskapitalisme), her insider revelations of NEHAWU’s unduly high influence over the Commission are particularly interesting.

Many ZA commentators have lamented the increasingly pervasive sway that trade unions have in merger-control talks with the enforcer.  This is especially important in light of South Africa’s merger-control regime having express “public interest criteria” embedded in its legislation.

Two ZA antitrust lessons

  1. The legislation’s social agenda element, combined with the now confirmed unions’ influence over agency staff, may have resulted (and will likely result in the future, if unchecked) in extensive so-called “public-interest” conditions imposed on otherwise unproblematic transactions that pose no pure antitrust issues.
  2. The ZA Competition Commission has received extensive bad press of late.  Now, even insiders speak out about the (personnel, rather than structural) problems that have befallen the agency.  Specialist publications (such as Global Competition Review, which publishes a dedicated review and ranking of government antitrust enforcement agencies, in which the Commission used to fare rather well), as well as practitioners and the courts, may perceive these developments as significant steps backward for an institution that once was lauded as a shining example of developing competition-law authorities.  Even Acting Commissioner Bonakele admits that the authority is “in a rebuilding phase. All I can say is that the commission is losing a key staff member. It’s a setback. When you’re rebuilding an institution you need all hands on deck,” and the minister in chage (Patel) believes the Commission too independent.

 

* The author also wrote an interesting piece on the Competition Commission‘s sectoral health-care inquiry (we reported here and elsewhere) in last week’s FM.

Official closure schedule of COMESA – unique time table

COMESA Competition Commission logo

Note to practitioners: filings due on these unique closure dates, set by the COMESA Competition Commission‘s registrar’s office for 2014, will be due on the subsequent working day:

1. 1st January 2014- New Years’s Day
2. 15th January 2014- John Chilembwe day
3. 3rd March 2014- Martyrs Day
4. 18th April 2014- Good Friday
5. 21st April 2014- Easter Monday
6. 1st May 2014- Labour Day
7. 14th May 2014- Kamuzu Day
8. 20th May, 2014- General Elections
9. 7th July 2014- Independence Day
10. 15th October 2014- Mothers Day
11. 25th December 2014- Christmas