Cleaning up: Cameroon chemist turns oil waste into soap

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The disposal of used cooking oil and fat from food waste is an issue facing cities around the world. Without proper management, it can clog up sewers and drains, pollute the environment, and spread disease.
Martial-Gervais Oden Bella, an industrial chemistry technician from Cameroon, has turned his scientific expertise to finding an innovative solution to this problem.
His Douala-based company, GIC Bellomar, finds local solutions to the problems and needs of the population. Its operations range from manufacturing essential oil from orange peels, to making pot bags that help households save gas by finishing cooking without a heat source.

But the company’s most popular products are the soaps and detergents it produces from used cooking oil – a raw material that Bella and his collaborators collect from hotels and restaurants in the coastal city.

“A study done in 2013 showed us that the majority of used cooking oil from Douala’s hotels was being thrown into the environment. This was more than 20,000 litres of oil which was being dumped each year, and that’s a huge amount,” said Bella.

“As part of our research, we wondered what can be done with these oils. We then carried out some analysis that showed us that these oils still have physicochemical properties that can help saponification [the conversion of fat or oil into soap]. So we started using them to make laundry soap, household soap and now powdered detergent.”
These products, which are sold locally, have proved extremely popular, says Bella.
Paul Nyoma who works at a neighbouring firm specialising in heavy machinery rentals and metal carpentry, said: "These are products that don't leave any marks and are incredibly pure. I was very surprised that we have young people on site who have this technology."

Bella and his team currently produce 100kg of soap a week, but he says he is keen to scale up operations.

“To be able to produce more, we need means, especially financial means, since we have already proved that the finished product is good,” he added. “We now need a unit that can produce maybe a tonne a week. For that, we need funds.”
The company is also keen to share its knowledge of the soap-making process and offers training to those wishing to replicate the initiative elsewhere.

SciDev.Net visited the GIC Bellomar laboratory, where the end-to-end process of making powdered detergent is carried out, to find out how it is done.
This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa French desk and edited for clarity.