What you need to know:
Uphill task: It is very expensive to patent inventions. Yet patents are essential if the inventor is to make future revenue generation from the intellectual property behind the inventions.
Back in 2004, a young graduate chemist in his twenties had a burning desire to practice what he had been taught. Driven by a tireless motivation to discover and invent, he started Gic Bellomar, a company that now has a number of inventions to its name; and is even getting government support to register IP ownership of its inventions.
A few metres from the Douala seaport, on the second floor of an old building dating from the French colonial era, the offices of Gic Bellomar are humming. It is a place of invention and training. Inside, a group of young scientists dressed in white lab coats are busy working on a new soap formula that is about to be patented. The group’s leader, Bella Oden, takes a quick break to offer a rare interview.
“I have always liked to do research, explore things, and come up with new solutions,” says Oden, explaining what initially drove him into the research and development venture.
Beyond creating new formulas for soaps, Gic Bellomar runs a blog and a course to teach people how to make soap following his personal formula. This course has attracted people willing to start a business or launch an income-generating activity. To date, he says he has trained more than 300 people. Among these is Isabelle Kenfack Moyo, who joined a training session organised by Oden’s team in 2016.
“I wanted to venture into soap-making. My prior experience had not been successful, so I started to look for experts who could help me. I found Oden while doing my research on the internet, his contact was available so I reached out to him”, she says of her early engagement with the inventor. Moyo, who had worked for local companies for some time, was ready to start her own business.
The training helped Moyo improve her know-how, and she was able to successfully launch her own hand-crafted soaps, branded “Natura”. “Everything I do today stems from this training, I ended up producing good-quality products, according to my clients,” Moyo explains.
“My brand is already known and I was able to open a showroom in Douala,” she adds.
Oden has trained and contributed to the launch of soap and cleaning products processing units across Africa, including in Chad, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Tunisia, Benin and the Central African Republic. “Soap is a basic necessity, and knowing how to process it can help people develop a source of income with a relatively small investment,” Oden says.
This business has not always been this successful. The first experiments in soap-making took place in 2004. At the time, the company made headlines with its soap-making formula, based on recycling cooking oil waste. The idea was to retrieve the waste from hotels, to prevent it from spilling into nature and then to transform it.
“Thousands of waste cooking oil are discarded every day in nature, polluting the environment and sewages, while they could be retrieved to be transformed into beneficial products,” Oden says.
After showcasing their prototypes, they managed to raise funds from government-supported loan institutions and scale their production, reaching an early milestone of 200kg of soap per week. Thanks to interest from a number of hotels, hospitals and laundries, which began placing regular orders, business looked to be taking off. But then disaster struck. An accident in the workshop caused irreversible damage to the production gear, bringing the operation to a halt. “The situation was desperate, we had a loan to resettle, and we couldn’t process anymore; we had simply run out of cash,” Oden recalls. Then he had a brainwave.
“I thought that I could sell my expertise,” he remembers. That is how the initiative to train other soap-makers was born.
In 2014, he published a book, “Improved techniques for hand-crafted soaps and detergents production” which is available online and has been downloaded more than 600,000 times. Oden’s blog, too, has received more than 600,000 visitors since its inception. Oden continues to come up with eco-friendly inventions that give a new life to waste. In 2014, he had the idea to process essential oil from orange peels. As he lacked the money to purchase the gear, he designed and built a distilling unit of his own, from scratch.
“I benefited a €1,500 (Shs5,6m) funding from an investor from Morocco, to design the device,” he recalls. In addition to soaps and detergents, he has developed a formula to process spirits from the same cooking oil wastes, an idea that emerged during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. He also makes organic paper wrapping from pineapple stems, as well as instant juice powder.
Patent for profit
Despite its success, the organisation has faced a challenge; owning its own inventions. According to Oden, he now has more than a dozen inventions but the company has been unable to patent them all, making future revenue generation from the intellectual property behind the inventions, impossible. In the same vein, Gic Bellomar has not made a lot of money from its innovative soap formula because the invention is not patented. But Oden says that transferring his know-how on such a large scale was instrumental in bringing him recognition and providing him with a high profile in his field of expertise.
On March 10, however, Oden was granted $8,000 (Shs28m) by the Proto Fund, a Cameroonian government initiative that supports inventors. The prize was for his formula for making spirits from raw fruit and vegetables. That money will be used to upgrade a prototype, and Oden is looking forward to patenting the invention.
“It is very expensive to patent inventions. Fortunately, we are now benefiting from the financial support of government structure to help us fund the protection of our intellectual property,” he says.
The Cameroonian government now has a programme that supports 90 per cent of the intellectual property registration fees for innovators, a programme that has allowed him to patent two of his inventions.
“Thanks to the programme, we have patents for a cholesterol-free mayonnaise formula and a preservative, and we will be patenting more of our innovations in the period to come,” he says.