Story - Jérémie Lubiba

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19.01.2018

An accidental pharmacist.

I actually became a pharmacist by accident.
My father was a nurse, so I wanted to become a doctor. In those days, you could enrol for 2 studies at the same time, in case you didn’t get in in one; so I enrolled in Pharmacy as well. Medicine was too much in demand, so they put me in Pharmacy.

After finishing school, I didn’t wait to get a job. Within two months, I was working for an American laboratory. Sadly, during the troubles in the 1990s, most international companies left. Ours stayed for a while, but as the sales kept going down, one day I found myself without a job.
At the time, there was an agreement between Zaire and South Africa, allowing us to enter without a visa. A lot of my friends had already left, and my wife and I were thinking of doing the same thing – I already had a few jobs lined up. But as good Christians, first we wanted to pray to God for guidance. So we prayed and fasted for three days. Two days later, God spoke through me. He said: stay in this country; and build a pharmaceutical laboratory. And that’s – with only 5000 USD in my pockets – how Laboratoires B.I.S. was born!

The key to success

When in the 1990s the troubles started and imports stopped, local pharmacies that pretty much had been selling only European imports suddenly found themselves without products. This attracted foreign players, but also allowed a few local laboratories to open. These – and we – started very simply: we made ointments – with a lot of imagination, as none of the techniques we learned in college, using advanced laboratories and machines, worked. So we used pots and pans; we took our mixers and adjusted them. We started small and did everything ourselves; for the labels, we used photocopies and cut those by hand.

There were many players on the market, both local and foreign, and I realised that, in order to succeed, I had to stand out.

That’s when God looked favourably upon me: I went to the vial factory to buy some vials and the owner told Invoicing: this guy, he’s my friend, extend him a line of credit. This allowed me to produce bigger quantities and acquire bigger clients that weren’t being served at the time. Because if I can sell a guy 3000 vials, he’s not going to deal with 30 guys who can sell him 100 vials each… That was the first factor of my success.

In those days, the Franc could devalue several times a day and bad people would make use of that: they would pay your bills in parts, paying you 100 dollars one day, and another the next; leaving you with a 1000 dollars’ worth of bills and 800 dollars’ worth of income. That’s how you lose your margins. So I what I did was calculate all my expenses, add my margins, and put it in dollars. The dollars I made, I used to pay for my supplies. That was the second factor.

And the third factor was this: everyone was selling their products in groups of 20, so when you bought “a package”, you bought 20. I made my standard package larger, containing 50. So when someone bought from me, they immediately bought twice than what they bought from my competitors!

Once we had established Laboratoires B.I.S. like this, we wanted to move to the next level. That’s when I told God: I want to make eye drops. Everyone’s afraid to produce them, because they need to be perfect before anyone wants to put them anywhere near their eyes. Therefore, there was a crying need for eye drops.

So in 1998 to 2000 I saved up. Then I bought the special equipment through an Indian friend, allowing me to do things my competitors couldn’t.

Learning

At the time, the internet became accessible, so I used it to find books on topics I was interested in. In Europe, some friends and I went to all the University libraries and bookshops in Belgium and France and I brought back all those books. Because things had changed since I was in university, and to be good at what you do, you need to keep learning & training, learning & training,… That is why I continuously update my knowledge base, in the area of pharmaceutical formulations, in everything I could find. Whenever I travel, I come back with 25-50 kilos of books. I’ve invested a lot in myself, training, allowing me to do further research to perfect my drugs and ointments. This has proven to be a clear added value for the company: we started with 0 and are now at around 50 different drugs and ointments; I’ve done the formulation and perfection myself. Developing a new drug takes me at least 2 years; some of our drugs took me over 7 years to perfect.

Partnerships

When I make a product, I compare myself to the European & American laboratories. I look at the drugs they produce and tell myself: I need to see these results and those qualities; and then I work towards that. This is not ground breaking work: I’m using known molecules in my formulations. To perfect them, I’ve developed partnerships with several doctors in the DRC: I give them my prototypes to try; they tell me the results and we move forward together.

One of these partnerships has worked especially well: the one with the ophthalmologists. I’ve entered into a partnership with the technical school in the fight against blindness in the form of a prize. We also provide annual sponsorships for projects working on this topic and provide financial assistance to those people who need to go abroad to train or to attend a conference; as long as it benefits everyone.

Next to the ophthalmologists, I’m also working with the ear doctors and the dermatologists. The problem these specialised groups often have is that they have difficulties finding the right medicine; and that’s where we come in.

Of course, sometimes we produce medicine not because they sell well, but because they are necessary; for example: a particular type of eye drops is only used by doctors, which means the demand is low; however, as they need it, we produce it.

That’s how we help the Congolese people: we don’t give away drugs, but we help and train the doctors who will treat them. Our mission is: make recent and efficient molecules available and accessible to the African population in general, and the Congolese people in particular, with the aim to improve the management of patients and make available the most recent effective and qualitative drugs, comparable to those manufactures by other firms around the world.

The Future

In the last few years, we’ve been thinking about the future of Laboratoires B.I.S.. Because one fault many African business founders have is that their companies rarely survive their death. That’s why my wife and I have been systematising our operations; creating manuals for all procedures; so that when our children take over, they’ll be able to look into these documents and know what to do. We’ve also put in place software, allowing me to check our production, even when I’m in Europe! Last, but definitely not least, we sent our children to school. When my eldest wanted to come back to DRC after he finished his American university education; we told him to stay in the US and get a job; we were getting things in order here and he needs the overseas experience. Our eventual goal is to become obsolete; our company, our work and our family needs to continue, with or without our presence.

Jérémie Lubiba, Founder of Laboratoires B.I.S.





Business International Society (B.I.S.) Laboratories is a pharmaceutical company in the DRC specialised in ophthalmological medicine. B.I.S. Laboratories is a client of the African Rivers Fund, an SME investment fund focused on in Central and Eastern Africa into which BIO invested USD 5 M in equity.


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