On Monday, renowned local designer Sonia Mugabo (of the ‘SM’ fashion brand) outted ‘House of Hippo’, a local clothing store, on Twitter and Facebook for using images from her Remera-based store to promote itself.
“This is unacceptable. You don’t have the right to promote your business using my brand name. Please delete these photos ASAP”, Mugabo posted on the House of Hippo Facebook page. In response, House of Hippo defended itself, saying that it did nothing wrong. This despite the fact that the images that purported to show their store’s goods had the SM brand watermark!
Ms. Mugabo’s Facebook and Twitter tirade against House of Hippo opened the floodgates.
A local businessman, who runs a grocery delivery service, revealed that one company had actually copied his own company’s logo and was now was advertising its own delivery services using the very same logo.
The online conversation then moved from “we cannot believe the gall of these people” to “what can be done?”
While previously the issue of protection of intellectual property rights wasn’t one that made it into mainstream conversations (probably because, to be honest, Rwandans weren’t really making a whole lot of original products), it’s my belief that this issue has the potential to become a hot potato especially as local brands become more and more valuable financially.
While this issue might seem of little consequence right now, I worry that fakes can become the new ‘normal’.
Think I’m exaggerating? While living in Beijing from 2013-2014, I discovered Yashow Market, a tourist magnet located in the swanky Sanlitun district of the Chinese capital.
In this multi-storied building, you could buy dirt cheap Nike sneakers and Levi jeans, Polo tee-shirts and Ray Ban sunglasses. The reason why they were so cheap? Because all of them were as fake as a Rwf 3,000 banknote. In fact, you negotiated the prices of the fake goods depending on how fake they were.
Funny enough, Yashow Market wasn’t hidden from view; in fact, it was next to a major mall that sold $300 Adidas footwear and Starbucks coffee. It seemed as if Levi, Nike, Apple and Ralph Lauren had given up the fight against the fakes because there were simply too many producers of fake merchandise to go up against. These premier brands had gambled that discerning status-conscious customers would choose their real products, instead of the fakes.
Currently, we don’t have the kinds of issues that certain brands face in Asia, however I believe that it is only a matter of time that local brands, such as House of Tayo, Uzi and Haute Baso, face the scourge of counterfeiters.
I know that we have laws that protect intellectual property rights. In fact, the Law N° 31/2009 OF 26/10/2009 on the protection of intellectual property is actually quite detailed. However, I believe that there is a problem in how the law is meant to be enforced. While it purports to protect all the intellectual property owners, in reality it only protects those that can afford to pay a lawyer to take forgers and counterfeiters to task.
Our nascent creatives, who struggle just to break even every month, are in no position to hire lawyers to write cease and desist letters. All they can do is name and shame people online. This isn’t good enough.
Here is my suggestion; let us create a bureau, either in the National Police, or RDB, that provides a one-stop shop for those who want to report instances of intellectual property violation. This bureau would have the power to investigate these instances and warn offenders to desist from further action. I doubt that those warned would dare to continue committing the crime. Having such a reporting mechanism would, I believe, nip this growing issue in the bud.
Recently, the Ministry of Commerce announced that it would waive VAT and import duties on textile raw materials and leather in order to encourage the local textile and shoe making industry; in doing so, the government, which will lose billions in import taxes and VAT, hopes that ‘Made in Rwanda’ brands will flourish.
However, I’m worried that we risk a ‘Made in China’ situation (where people think that anything made in China is fake, even if that isn’t necessarily true) unless there is a serious move against those who violate intellectual property rights.