Due to phenomena such as industrialization and urbanization, water consumption in the country has increased rapidly, resulting in the demand for water far outweighing the supply of the resource. Thinking back to pre-colonial South Africa, water rights were governed by customary law, and these rights were not contested among individuals in communities and in fact only came up when a community felt that another was encroaching onto its resources. Fast forward to South Africa under democratic law, and IP ownership and exploitation has become more competitive due to the increasing demand for water and the political play that has unfolded in the country.
From a purely modern commercial perspective, IP transactions and protection within the water sector can also generally be represented by the status quo. That is, transactions can be entered into for profit, and protection can be sought to gain a monopoly. However, water is a natural resource, and a basic human right, so socio-economic factors come into play with regards to IP within the sector. Because of this, the National Water Act, 1998 was legislated, the gist of which states that everybody has the right to clean water and proper sanitation.
Like in any other industry, a significant benefit of obtaining IP rights is that these rights tend to drive innovation by incentivizing researchers to invent novel technologies and processes, as well as improve upon existing systems. This is important now more than ever because, in the South African water sector in particular, new innovations will play a big part in ensuring the country’s water security. Although many are of the opinion that the issue of water shortage in the country should be approached from a neo-liberal perspective, the current reality is that many companies have built their businesses around water treatment and sanitation technologies and services, and as such making a profit is very high on their list of priorities. Securing IP rights also ensures that the country is in a better position to grow its local production and manufacturing practices. It also emphasizes the importance of innovation and the long term benefits that innovation has to the inventors and the economy of our country.
Various universities around the country have centres and units dedicated to water research. The University of Cape Town and Rhodes University house water research institutes, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal and North West University have centres dedicated in some way to water research and resource management, and UNISA has a unit for water sustainability and research. These research units have resulted in a wealth of water-related IP creation within the country; sometimes to significant social and economic benefit. An excellent example of this is the Smart Geyser controller developed by researchers from Stellenbosch University. This piece of university intellectual property has enabled two primary schools to save approximately 800 000 liters of water, which roughly equates to up to R30 000 savings on their water bills.
Many innovators have managed to turn their water-related IP into successful businesses which have made a profound social impact on the country, Murendeni Mafumo being prime example. Upon completing his diploma in chemistry at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), he worked as a technical analyst at City of Cape Town and Joburg Water. During his time as an analyst, he realized that not enough clean potable water was made available to inhabitants in rural areas, and from this realisation he established GreenSolns Water in an attempt to remedy this. The company is based on a membrane water purification technology. The company has become successful, selling organic micro-membrane filtration systems that treat water from sources more accessible to rural communities such as rivers, ponds, streams, and even harvested rainwater.
Another example is the company Water, Hygiene, Convenience started by Paseka Lesolang at the tender age of 18. This company is based on a leak-less valve which reduces the amount of water lost through toilet leaks (WHC Leak-Less ValveTM). This innovation is essentially a control mechanism which prevents 70% of the water loss in toilet leaks when the toilet is not in use. It is clear from these examples that sometimes IP will definitely have a place in the water sector.
As we move with the rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization, South Africa has demonstrated its ability to harness the skills and drive of those who have created tangible and valuable innovations that will greatly benefit South Africa and its inhabitants. With a fine lens placed on the water sector, there are innovators that have channeled the focus to cater to the country’s seemingly insatiable water demands. With the continual development of innovative interventions, South Africa should aim to also influence the larger economy. However, in order to play in the global space, we would need to capacitate our innovators in understanding the value and benefits of IP protection, and thus showcase South Africa as an influencer when it comes to solutions to water crises.
Evah Phago is a Technology Transfer Analyst at the Water Research Commission.