Towards the end of September 2017, the Innovation Village organized a Soiree – which is an internal networking event for the inhabitants. The event happened at a time when MTN was calling for applications to its 2017 Innovation Awards slated to take place in November.
At the same event, John Babirukamu, the MTN Uganda Digital Communications Manager, gave a brief explanation about the awards, encouraged the various innovators to apply and later took questions from the audience.
Though, one of the issues that stood out was the fact innovators accused MTN of stealing startups' ideas. John made an attempt to clear the issue but the attendants didn't seem convinced.
It should be noted that there have been cases of bigger players preying on the smaller ones for some time now - for example, Google and Yelp.
For the case of Uganda, MTN has been criticised on several occasions for stealing ideas. In this medium post, Mwesigwa Daniel – a tech blogger in Kampala – wonders if MTN Uganda went back to "its sinful ways of preying on Startups".
However, in a separate email conversation with John Babirukamu, he dismissed the allegations. Saying;
“As MTN, it is our policy not to take or steal ideas either generated at our App challenges or Hackathons or exhibited at our Innovation awards. We instead partner where possible with winners & innovative individuals through the use of our API’s & services to better enhance their apps."
He pointed out that MTN has come up with several innovative ideas in the past that people have gone on to claim the telecom giant stole simply because they're similar to theirs.
“In the past, several individuals searching for common problems like financial inclusion and mobile banking thought up some very innovative solutions that were similar in some ways to what MTN had already been developing. It is this coincidence that leads them to think we still [sic] Ideas. However, these projects are executed with partners who have several years’ experience doing the same in other countries,” John said.
When asked, since – as he pointed out – MTN isn’t stealing any ideas, what can be done to clear the situation, John recommended that whoever is to participate in their awards or competitions should read the terms and conditions for participation carefully.
We have clear terms and conditions on our website to show the rules of engagement in all our competitions. This is also backed up by participants in previous competitions who can testify to the true purpose of our awards - John Babirukamu.
In a separate conversation with innovators and startup founders around Kampala – especially in tech, many claimed the company reaps off innovators. However, they were afraid of being quoted fearing that - since the telecom rules the tech innovation space in Uganda - they may be blacklisted.
James Wire – another popular tech blogger with vast knowledge on ICT, Innovation, and telecoms said that it is hard to tell whether the company steals ideas or not. He, however, cited a couple of scenarios that Mwesigwa Daniel also pointed out in his medium post.
It's hard to say that they steal or don't steal the ideas but I know of a case where MTN slugged it out with a local company whose product they had stolen. Remember Me2U? - James Wire on whether MTN steals startup ideas or not.
It should also be noted that in 2009, in South Africa, a Polokwane couple sued MTN for allegedly "stealing" their concept when it ran the controversial MTN15 competition that same year.
To add a similar case concerning the theft of ideas in Kampala, James Wire pointed out one involving KCCA and a University student where the City Authority turned down the student's proposal only to go ahead and implement a similar product.
“There was another case of some University kids that proposed a QR code system to manage taxis in Kampala. KCCA turned down the opportunity only to launch a similar service a few months down the road,” James said.
He also acknowledged that the vice could be deeper as “most business development personnel in those big companies hijack ideas from unsuspecting innovators.” Which clarifies the point where James said he is not sure whether MTN steals the ideas or not. Because, if it is the employees who're stealing the ideas, then it is their liability - not MTN.
When asked if there’s a way for innovators to protect themselves against the vice, James recommends that Innovators should start to actively participate in Intellectual Property studies.
First, our innovators as a rule of thumb need to undertake some studies in IPR. I did that years back and it has helped me in many spheres - James Wire on the importance of IP studies.
He advises that this can be approached in a simple way by innovation hubs organizing IPR workshops and get people like him to train the Innovators at a modest fee. “Chances are high that the basic IPR knowledge will go a long way in helping them,” James added.
After these workshops, James suggests that larger organizations that demand lots of money can then be engaged. This is where, according to James, lobbying from the government should be considered. Though, he advises that this should be approached on a united front by use of associations like ICTA-U.
Secondly, he suggests that there should be a simpler process one can go through to legally engage companies engaged in the vice of stealing ideas and innovations. As the system is currently, James says that one requires a vault with hundreds of millions to take on an MTN.