Mashirika versus Mashariki: Who can spot the difference?

Sunday February 4 2018

Members of Mashirika perform on stage. A

Members of Mashirika perform on stage. A dispute has erupted between two groups over the name. PHOTO | ANDREW I KAZIBWE | NATION 

By ROBERT MBARAGA
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Mashirika, a Rwandan performing arts company, has raised concerns over Mashariki African film festival, an non-governmental organisation, using a name similar to it.

The arts company says the NGO’s brand name imitates its own and is considering taking legal action should Mashariki refuse to change its name.

Director and founder of Mashirika, Hope Azeda, said Mashariki’s name was causing confusion and is likely to taint the company’s image or cost them business.

“In the past two years, we have received many calls from our partners seeking an explanation on the festival that is organised by Mashariki. They thought we were the organisers because they cannot differentiate between Mashirika and Mashirika,” said Ms Azeda.

She added that the similarity in the names will see some of their partners give business to Mashariki by mistake, but even worse is the impact on their reputation.

“We have spent the past 17 years building a reputable brand that is associated with professionalism and excellence,” Ms Azeda said.

No confusion

Mashariki African film festival organisers said their name is unique and does not encroach on anyone’s rights.

“The two names have different names and we do not see any confusion between Mashirika, which means ‘to bring efforts together’ and Mashariki which means east,” said Tresor Senga, the president of Mashariki African Film Festival.

Besides the different meaning in the two names, Mr Senga said his organisation took up the name in good faith and added that the two brands are involved in different endeavours.

“Mashirika is mainly in theatre and other performing arts while Mashariki offers a platform for showcasing movies from the eastern part of Africa,” Mr Senga said.

Mashariki African film festival was started in 2016, and Mashirika did not complain. Ms Azeda said they initially ignored the entrance of Mashariki, but got concerned after several partners appeared confused about the two brands, since Mashirika is also involved in festivals.

The company has been organising the Ubumuntu Festival annually, since 2015. The festival happens after the last week of the 100-day commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

It involves performances, workshops, panels and visits to genocide memorial sites.

Legal action

Mashirika said it is considering legal action, either on infringement of intellectual property or unfair competition, as an amicable solution seems elusive.

“We have already talked to our lawyers about the matter as several attempts to find an amicable solution through government institutions has not been successful,”said Ms Azeda.

Since 2016, Mashirika has involved several government agencies, including the Rwanda Governance Board and Rwanda Academy of Language and Culture in trying to convince Mashariki to give up their name.

“After an investigation and consultations, the Rwanda Governance Board is convinced that if there is any damage caused, it can be handled within the legal provisions,” reads a letter by the board dated January 2017.

Mr Senga said they were summoned by both the Rwanda Governance Board and Rwanda Academy of Language and explained their stand on the matter.

“We are ready to defend our position including in court,” he added.

Intellectual property

Mashirika, originally founded by Ms Azeda in 1997, has dominated the country’s theatre and contemporary dance industry.

While Mashirika is registered as a limited company and many of its trademarks including the name and logo are registered as intellectual property by the Rwanda Development Board, Mashariki is registered as an NGO through the Rwanda Governance Board.

Despite Ms Azeda and Mr Senga meeting in several forums, they have never discussed the matter in person.

In the past five years, the country has seen a significant rise in rows over intellectual property, mainly on brand names, trademark encroachment and copyright infringements.

Several court cases involving brands have already been heard or are still ongoing, with observers saying the government needs to come up with better strategies to counter copyright infringement.