Competing in the Caribbean

by Teresa Acklin
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A small mill in Grenada looks to higher efficiencies to enhance its competitive position.

   With a 1994 population of 94,000 and a land area of 340 square kilometers, Grenada is the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. So it's no surprise that this eastern Caribbean country's flour mill operates with a relatively modest capacity.

   Built in 1981 by Continental Grain Co., the New York-based international commodity trading, milling and food company, the mill in St. George's, Grenada's capital, could be categorized as small; its current capacity is 60 tonnes of wheat per 24 hours.

   The Grenada mill is operated by Caribbean Agro Industries Ltd., a partnership of Continental Grain and George F. Huggins Ltd., part of a major Caribbean network of retailers and distributors. About 50% of the mill's annual output is sold domestically, and the remainder is exported to other eastern Caribbean countries, such as St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Vincent and Antigua; both the domestic and export flour markets are price driven and competitive.

   The first 10 years of operation for the Grenada mill were relatively uneventful, said Michael Boczewski, director of operations and engineering for the ContiLatin Division of Continental Grain, in a recent interview. But in the early 1990s, the economics of producing flour in Grenada changed drastically, brought about by changes in government concessions and the opening of the flour market to competition from within the Organization of East Caribbean States.

   “We needed to become more competitive, to increase volume and reduce costs,” Mr. Boczewski said.

   Among the options studied was PeriTec, the wheat debranning system developed by the Satake Corp., Tokyo. Mr. Boczewski said Continental Grain decided to try the system in the Grenada mill in anticipation of attaining higher extraction rates. Work began in late 1993, and the system was operational by mid-1994.

   “We've had very favorable results,” Mr. Boczewski said.

   The mill's original daily capacity, using six Henry Simon rollstands and one six-section sifter, was 45 tonnes of wheat. The PeriTec system raised the output to the current 60 tonnes using the same mill equipment. The increase is based on higher extraction rates, with the maximum attainable extraction now in the low 80% range, Mr. Boczewski said.

   Incorporating the debranning system and adapting the Grenada mill flow to the system was a learning process for all involved, Mr. Boczewski said. Satake technical staff, mill management and plant personnel took a team approach to the project, he said, which included a complete reflow of the mill.

   “You can't just stick the system in there and expect it to work,” he said. “Basically, you are rebalancing the whole mill. We were supported very well by the Satake Corp, with their dispatching of technical personnel at various times out of the U.K., Japan and the U.S.”

   A critical element to debranning successfully is wheat conditioning and the way atomized water is applied, Mr. Boczewski said. To manage this step efficiently, the mill installed leading edge technology, including a programmable logic controller and electronic sensors.

   Although the mill's energy costs increased some with the system, capacity increases have offset those costs, Mr. Boczewski said. And debranning provided other economic benefits; because the flour contains more of the aleurone layer, protein loss across the mill dropped to 0.5% from the previous 1%.

   “Debranning definitely is an option in specific markets with demand for straightforward flours,” Mr. Boczewski said.

   The Grenada mill grinds German and French wheat and some U.S. spring wheat, and its full range of products includes pan bread flours, pastry flours used in flat breads and dumplings, as well as whole wheat flours. The debranning system produces the same proportionate results for all wheats, Mr. Boczewski said.

   The Grenada mill site is located in a valley away from the port at St. George's, and grain is transported by truck to the mill. The Grenada facility also includes a small feed plant, which processes maize and soybean meal and some of the flour mill's byproduct.

   Continental Grain supplies wheat, maize and soybean meal to the plant, as well as to another mill in the Netherlands Antilles. The same vessel generally services both plants, making deliveries every four to six weeks.

   All flour and feed leaving the mill is bagged and transported by truck. The flour is generally in 45-kg bags, and the feed is packaged in 23-kg bags. Some export orders are containerized at the plant and then transported to the port.

   All purpose flour and whole wheat flour are sold in small packages, mainly for the domestic market, but some are now being exported. The 11-kg package is very popular with small bakers and institutional users. The mill uses agents to sell its export flour in other Caribbean islands and a combination of agents and direct sales in the domestic market.

   Home baking predominates in Grenada, and there are no industrial bakeries by North American or European standards. Most of the commercial baking carried out in Grenada still relies on hand work for much of the process. Some of the bakery breads are produced with very high fat levels by U.S. standards.

   Even though the Grenada mill may be small by some measures, management and personnel are committed to producing high quality products in a safe and hygienic environment. Mr. Boczewski said company procedures included mill inspections that follow the same rigorous sanitary inspection criteria as those applied by the American Institute of Baking, Manhattan, Kansas, a U.S.-based educational/research group supported by the North American grain-based foods industry. The A.I.B. also conducts food plant inspections under contract.

   Last year, Caribbean Agro Industries attained certification to ISO 9002 and was the first plant in the Eastern Caribbean to do so. The company also has been very active in an effort to eliminate bromate use, which had been widespread among the region's millers. That effort is beginning to meet with success, Mr. Boczewski said.