By the very nature of their work, intellectual property practitioners are accustomed to encountering clients who are creative, inventive and visionary. Some are excellent team members while others choose a more solitary path, blazing a trail where others see trackless terra incognita. On the other hand, the IP specialist is seen to play a facilitative and supportive role, helping to make innovation possible, without necessarily shaping it directly.
Gift Huggins Sibanda shows precisely how false this stereotypical view can be. During the course of a career spanning almost three decades, he has been a lone pioneer, a dedicated team player, a consensus-generating diplomat and a respected leader – while always remaining a consummate intellectual property professional.
From 2005 to 2012, Gift has served as the Director-General of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) but when he began reading for his Masters Degree at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow in 1980, he chose to specialise in IP law at a time when the field seemed almost irrelevant to Africa. Despite this he persevered and having graduated he became a Formality Examiner in Patents, Trade Marks and Industrial Designs in the Deeds Department of Zimbabwe. This time at the coal face provided valuable experience but his performance and potential rapidly led to him being seconded to the World Intellectual Property Organization to assist with the establishment of a Patent Documentation and Information Centre within the framework of ARIPO.
As a result of the success of this project, Gift was appointed as an Industrial Property Officer in ARIPO but his abilities and responsibilities went far beyond those of a pure patents specialist. Already during his WIPO days it had become apparent that for ARIPO to succeed in its aims and objectives, it was vital that someone should drive the process of achieving buy-in from the signatory states. So began Gift’s career as a diplomat, working tirelessly behind the scenes to garner support for the ratification of the Harare Protocol, the incorporation of the Patent Cooperation Treaty within ARIPO, and the execution of a study into the incorporation of trademarks within the framework of the organization, eventually leading to the Banjul Protocol on Marks. Recognising the realities of entrepreneurship and innovation in an African context he also worked towards the acceptance of the utility model system, whereby the IP value inherent in relatively small inventions could be protected at an affordable cost.
During this time Gift rose steadily through the ranks of ARIPO, being promoted to the rank of Senior Industrial Property Officer in 1992, followed by his appointment as Head of the Legal and Training Department in 2004. While furthering the broader vision of the organization he was also intimately involved in the development of its capabilities and capacity. This included identifying suitable premises for the organization’s headquarters in the host country, Zimbabwe, as well as negotiating the purchase of the property. He also developed a training programme to help develop the capacity of IP practitioners within the organizations and its member states, once again demonstrating his forward-looking approach. In 2005, Gift’s efforts and expertise were recognised by his appointment as Director-General of ARIPO. The ability to create clarity amidst possible confusion is one of the key requirements of leadership and to this end Gift ensured that as an organization, ARIPO remained focused on its objectives. To this end he formulated six strategic goals, including resource mobilization and the enhancement of the corporate image, infrastructural development, the promotion and harmonization of IP laws, the delivery of quality services and the building of strategic partnerships and the supporting of IP policy development. During his two terms in this post, he worked vigorously to establish strategic partnerships with states and organizations to further the objectives of ARIPO in particular and the role of IP law in Africa generally. Where ARIPO began as an organization of Anglophone African states, under Gift’s stewardship it has taken on a more Pan-African character. ARIPO could so easily have become a rival of OAPI, its Francophone analogue on the continent, but Gift has played a crucial role in cementing a solid partnership between the bodies, including a bilateral agreement in 1996 and an agreement on training in 2005. He also always made a particular effort to attend the sessions of the Administrative Council of OAPI, and when this was not possible, to send a suitable representative. This has assisted Africa to present a united front when dealing with IP issues with international partners, including the Industrial Property Offices of China, the Japanese Patent Office and the International Trademark Association.
Among the fundamental criteria of patentability are that an invention must be novel, be non-obvious or inventive, and be useful or have some practical application. Many of Gift’s innovations have satisfied these requirements while not necessarily being patentable. Often he has come up with a new approach that others have over-looked and which has made a tangible difference to the work of ARIPO, its members and staff. Whether it was improving Internet connectivity at the Harare headquarters or developing a search and examination strategy to reduce backlogs, Gift has shown a remarkable ability to get the spanner out of the works and the gears turning.
As a colleague, practitioner, mentor, leader and friend, Gift Sibanda will be sorely missed at ARIPO and by all those who have come into contact with him through the organization. At the same time, he has also established such a firm foundation for the organization that its smooth running is assured, giving his successor ample scope to take ARIPO to greater heights. Fortunately his knowledge, experience and creativity will not be lost to IP in Africa – and it is hoped that IP practitioners on the continent can look forward to the Gift that keeps on giving for many years to come.