A whopping 81 percent of computer software now in use in Africa has been pirated, costing governments and the high-tech industry billions of dollars in revenue and choking growth, experts warn.
As the continent looks to information technology to help jumpstart development and reduce poverty, Africa must enhance and enforce intellectual property laws if it is to truly benefit from new innovations, they say.
Meeting at a recent workshop in the Kenyan capital, representatives of software companies, including US giant Microsoft Corp, government and media companies heard stunning piracy figures and the costs to local economies.
Abed Hlatshwayo, Microsoft's anti-piracy manager for eastern and southern Africa, said the region is awash in illegal copies and downloads worth more than US$12.4 billion.
"We cannot sit back and watch our work being pirated," he said.
"We need to change this so that we can all contribute to the growth of our economies through an effective intellectual property rights framework, provide more education, encourage better asset management for business and enforcement," he said.
A 10 percent reduction by 2009 in piracy could spark growth in the information technology business, and resulting tax revenue of some US$22.5 billion in the Middle East and Africa, according to studies, he said.
But convincing the growing number of African computer users to work with legitimate software will be difficult, experts said.
"People don't want to spend money on something tangible which is easily available," said James Kusewa, an operating environment and messaging business development manager for Dimensions Data, an east African IT firm.
"It's hard, but software companies need to convince people to budget for IT and buy software from correct channels so that they can get the value of genuine software like security updates, product upgrades, warranty, technical support ... that can't run on pirated copies," he said.
In many African countries, piracy is so endemic, it is virtually impossible to find legal copies, according to industry surveys.
In Zimbabwe, a staggering 90 percent of software in use is estimated to be pirated. Botswana and Nigeria share the dubious distinction of 82 percent piracy rates, while Kenya fares little better at 80 percent, they said.
Much of that software, about 90 percent, has entered Africa from nations with traditionally weak copyright enforcement: the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, China and Indonesia.
But African pirates are rapidly entering the market with Bots-wana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Zambia added this year to the top 20 list of high piracy states as determined by the Business Software Alliance, an umbrella group for the industry.
The surge has been exacerbated by the introduction of digital technology and Internet file sharing, said Edward Sigei, an attorney with the Kenya Copyright Board.
He told the conference that more had to be done to build awareness of piracy among consumers and that governments had to boost import controls.
"Piracy has become a threat to copyright-based industry as it has wiped out the incentives for creators, which was offered by the copyright protection," Sigei said.
"This threatens the whole rationale of copyright system," he said.