For inventor Michael Suttner, the eureka moment in his search to invent a low-cost lighting source came when he spotted a simple water filter screwed into a plastic bottle.

He realised that before him was the solution to the conundrum that brought together the different elements he had already discovered, into his uniquely African lighting solution.

These included flexible, rapid charging solar panels that give 40 hours of light after eight hours of charging in sunlight and have a life of four to five years, plus a micro lithium ion battery.

“I saw the filter fitted into the water bottle and everything I had been investigating and thinking about suddenly crystallised in that moment,” says Suttner.

He already knew the World Health Organisation stats of how the poorest people in Africa, with an average salary is $1 to $2 a day, were spending 20% of their daily income on lighting, equating to a mind boggling R380-billion annual spend. And, again according to the WHO, how 2-million people were dying each year of pneumonia induced by paraffin fumes.

It also answered two other big problems Suttner, a mechanical engineer by training, was trying to solve: how to distribute his product without incurring huge manufacture and transport costs?

Known as The Lightie, his simple, but ingenious, light is designed to fit into an easily available receptacle – the ubiquitous plastic cool drink and water bottles found all over Africa.

His aim is to produce the product in South Africa and is working on a cost price of $2 to $3 and a retail price of $8 to $10 making it, with the savings on paraffin and candles, very affordable to even the poorest.

“Coca Cola is available all over Africa, so there is no shortage of plastic bottles and I also hope to do a distribution deal with them for the actual product,” says Suttner, who has been chosen to pitch his product for seed funding at this week’s CLIPDC conference.

The three-day conference is being attended by government officials, policy experts, academics and entrepreneurs from South Africa and Africa, and developing and developed countries.

Minister of Science and Technology Derek Hanekom told delegates that it is essential to ensure that a strong intellectual property (IP) framework is in place as South Africa moves from a resources to a knowledge-based economy.

“Intellectual property can be an effective lever for development, particularly for a country like ours, with the commitment we have made to migrate from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based one,” Hanekom says.

“Over the years, the engine of wealth creation has been shifting from physical, tangible assets to intellectual capital, or intangible assets, he said, adding that competitive advantage was created “through the strategic management and use of IP.”

Countries that had introduced strong IP protection had flourished, Hanekom adds.

“International benchmarking exercises clearly indicate that countries such as South Korea and China have developed their economies primarily through government intervention in their local systems of innovation to build on their competencies in manufacturing. There is a strong correlation between their economic growth and their patenting rate.”

The IP system was an important catalyst for developing an indigenous technology by Korean companies, several of which have become global market leaders. It has also seen the country transform poor farming economy in the 1960s, with a per capita income of less than $100 to today’s highly industrialized country with a per capita income of $12 000.

IP was a relatively new concept for many developing countries and public research institutions and South Africa had only passed enabling legislation in 2010, with the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO), subsequently set up to implement the new Act.

“The introduction of this legislation was brought about by the realisation that South African publicly financed research institutions collaborate on a global scale with countries that have strong IP regimes. In cases where our IP regimen shows signs of not being watertight, IP may be lost through collaboration agreements,” Hanekom said.

Failures to protect IP could result in billions of dollars in lost revenue, he said, citing the dolos, invented by East London engineer Eric Merrifield to protect harbours by dissipating wave velocity.

“It was never protected and it is found all over the world today and is worth billions,” Hanekom says “Our efforts to create a strong IP regime are geared towards ensuring that such avoidable losses never again occur.”

* Article courtesy of Raymond Joseph, reporting from the CLIPDC conference in Durban.