Impact Awards
2023 Partnership Award winners: Jeremy de Beer and Chidi Oguamanam

As our world changes at an increasingly rapid pace, the Open African Innovation Research partnership (Open AIR) asks: How could we distribute the benefits of knowledge and innovation more equitably and inclusively?

Open AIR was cofounded by University of Ottawa colleagues Jeremy de Beer and Chidi Oguamanam, who are representing the team in its win in the SSHRC Impact Awards Partnership category. From its inception, Open AIR’s pitch was that “Canada has more to learn from Africa than to teach to Africa.”

The lightbulb moment for de Beer was a 2008 research trip to the continent with Open AIR collaborator Dick Kawooya. They had set out to investigate the impacts copyright laws were having in real-world practice, from Alexandria, Egypt, to Dakar, Senegal, to Maputo, Mozambique.

“We saw an incredible array of creativity and we also saw some real practical challenges arising from colonial legal frameworks,” de Beer said.

Since then, the team has revolutionized understanding of Africa’s role in the global knowledge economy, contrasting the image of individuals like Steve Jobs in Silicon Valley as the ultimate innovators with that of what happens every day on the ground in the African informal economy: ideas spreading quickly and widely.

“The narrative that used to be floated was that exclusive intellectual property rights were a power tool for economic growth. What we've done is we’ve flipped the script, by exploring how open collaborative innovation can drive more scalable, sustainable, equitable and inclusive innovation systems,” said de Beer.

Oguamanam described how if your iPhone has a problem in Canada, you would take it to a shop. But in Africa, you would take it to a 12-year-old.

“They will reassemble the cell phone and fix the problem,” Oguamanam said.

The other leaders steering Open AIR come from across disciplines and regions, and include Nagla Rizk from the School of Business at The American University in Cairo; the heads of two of Africa’s leading centres of excellence in information technology and intellectual property—Melissa Omino in Nairobi, Kenya, and Tobias Schonwetter in Cape Town, South Africa—and Caroline Ncube and Erika Kraemer-Mbula, both holders of the prestigious South African Research Chair.

Over the years, this team has gathered to meet, from Zanzibar, Tanzania, to Dakar, and most recently in Ottawa.

“We meet frequently together and make consensus-based decisions. Although we all work in different disciplines in different spaces in different countries, we unite together around a shared vision,” de Beer said.

Open AIR has successfully created new models to better measure and value diverse modes of innovation, which is noteworthy, because orthodox economic tools like patents don’t capture what’s happening on the ground in informal economies. The team has worked to improve corresponding laws and policy frameworks for sustainable and inclusive development, both within Africa and beyond.

By changing the environment for innovation, Open AIR is facilitating solutions to some of society’s most important challenges. For example, it is pioneering models for open access to educational materials, imagining collaborative ways to transfer technology to fight climate change, and laying the groundwork for equitable access to life-saving medicines.

“Canada was punching below its weight and potential in Africa,” Oguamanam said. He believes the two places are well-suited to greater collaboration and partnership because Canada is highly regarded as a soft world power that has invested in Africa but doesn’t carry the same colonial baggage on the continent as other countries.

Open AIR’s research is particularly relevant and increasingly sought after with Africa on the cusp of monumental changes brought about by the African Continental Free Trade Area, which will connect upward of a billion people in an integrated economic community. The research team has directly impacted the new rules to govern trade in knowledge on the continent. They consulted with the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa to help draft an internal advisory report that became a go-to resource for government negotiators and the conceptual foundation for an international protocol.

Winning the Partnership Award is a “wonderful acknowledgement” of the value of Open AIR’s Canada-Africa collaboration, de Beer said. “It’s really rewarding to see the value of that kind of work recognized. My hope is that it will help to allow us to take the next steps to continue the work that we’ve been doing, and, in fact, to scale it up for even greater impacts as we go forward.”

About the award

The annual Impact Awards recognize the highest achievements in SSHRC-funded research, knowledge mobilization and scholarship, as well as the highest achievements resulting from a SSHRC fellowship awarded.

The Partnership Award recognizes a SSHRC-funded formal partnership for its outstanding achievement in advancing research, research training or knowledge mobilization, or developing a new partnership approach to research and/or related activities.

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