Students take fight to mobile company over invention


By Kenfrey Kiberenge

Even before the dust settles on the alleged patenting of kiondo and kikoi abroad, Kenyans are about to be treated to another contest, this time, between two university whiz kids and phone manufacturer, Nokia.

Nokia Executive Vice-President, Rick Simonson, was in Kenya last week to launch their version of a bicycle charger, which he said came after years of research to determine the needs of users in emerging markets.

But panicky Pascal Katana and Jeremiah Murimi from the University of Nairobi, who coincidentally completed work on their version also last week, have accused Nokia of stealing their idea.

Last week, the students indicated they were beginning legal proceedings against the company.

Pascal Katana displays their original ‘Smart Charger’ and the document they received from KIPI.

They claim to have the exclusive rights of making and selling bicycle mobile phone chargers, an idea they invented last year and immediately patented with the Kenya Industrial Property Institute (Kipi).

Similar Functionality

But in a swift rejoinder, Nokia says that there have been a number of other products, announced and productised, from other companies in the electrical, biking and mobile phone industry that offer similar functionality.

Nokia East and Central Africa Communications Manager Dorothy Ooko cited Pedal Power, Shimano, Busch Muller, Brompton, as chargers that use similar functionality.

"We believe the Nokia Bike Charger, at the price and feature set, will be a real success to drive global mainstream adoption of the concept and product," said Ooko.

But the two said they do not have a problem with the company selling their wares outside Kenya because they only have patented the product within Kenya.

"They can launch it in Tanzania or Uganda, we will not complain. But choosing Kenya as their launch destination is to spite us," said Murimi.

Kipi senior patent examiner John Maina said the phone maker could have a case to answer when Katana and Murimi acquire their patent certificate.

Requisite Documents

The two applied for the certificate in July last year and, as procedure dictates, were given a notification of utility model certificate application number (000153) and the filing date.

"It’s a reporter from the BBC who advised us to patent our product before he could publish our story. We could not raise the required amount of Sh2,500 and he offered to help us saying the idea could be stolen," said Murimi.

The two, both electrical and electronic engineering final year students, cannot institute legal procedures against anyone who infringes on their intellectual property since they are yet to receive the certificate.

Patent applications are normally published (the awarding of the certificate) after 18 months from initial filing date. Maina said they are not allowed to disclose the date when the certificate is to be released since the process involves discreet investigations.

However, he maintained that when the certificate is released, Nokia will have infringed on intellectual property and could be liable for damages.

But Ooko said a search request on recently filed or published patent applications in Kenya or elsewhere – listing Pascal Katana as applicant and/or inventor – may be made to Kipi.

A similar search could be undertaken for any recently granted patents involving the same applicant/inventor. "So far, none has been found," she said.

Exclusive Production

"Nokia has not applied for any patenting, but the two students have applied for exclusive production and selling of the chargers in Kenya," said Maina.

The senior patent examiner, however, said Katana and Murimi should inform Nokia that they are infringing on their intellectual property rights.

He also advised Nokia to come to an amicable settlement with the would-be owners of patent rights to avoid possible liabilities.

Nokia’s charger allows one to accumulate one-hour talk time from 20 minutes of cycling, according to Brad Brockaug, Nokia’s head of sales in Africa.

Katana explains that it takes an hour of pedalling to fully charge a phone, about the same time it would if it were plugged into the mains electricity.

Ooko wondered why Katana and Murimi have not spoken to Nokia about the alleged infringement, instead speaking to the media.

Feels Violated

"It is strange that Pascal Katana is contacting all media houses, but not Nokia that he is accusing. He has not contacted the company," said Ooko.

But Katana said they felt violated by the company’s move to launch a similar product, "yet they were aware that we had produced such a product".

"Why didn’t they also contact us before producing the chargers?" he posed.

Katana wowed many when he teamed up with Murimi, to come with the bicycle dynamo mobile phone charger. This helps the cyclists in rural areas with no or little electricity to charge their phones as they cycle. He produces the chargers using scrap materials from the Ngara junkyard.

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