Milling in Africa

by World Grain Staff
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Three areas of this vast continent — the coasts, hinterlands and South Africa — feature very distinct milling techniques and milled products

by Jonathan Bradshaw

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of five articles that describes the different approaches to investment in milling technology in the various environments around the world, the varying application of technology, and the skills base of those who operate mills in these often complex and diverse environments.

Africa is a vast continent that features a wide variety of milling techniques and milled products. Egypt is known for its balady bread, while Western Africa specializes in the production of general purpose household flour that is added to other ingredients to make soups and stews. Eastern Africa is renowned for its sandwich loaves and dumplings, while a mixture of flour and maize derivatives are commonly produced in South Africa.

Africa displays its tribal cultures and preferences in many ways, not the least of which is through a diverse culinary history and an ever-changing diet. The use of root crops, cassava, yams and sweet potato has heavily influenced the African diet. Demand for bread and bakery products has been relatively low compared with some other parts of the world.

The climate in much of Africa is dry with seasonal rains being welcome when they come. Often, though, the rains do not come, or certainly do not come when they are needed, causing crops to be ruined and wasted.

With an unstable political situation in many countries and sanctions often being applied, resources are scarce. Water is often at a premium and disease is a problem in a number of areas. Mills generally are older, although there are some newer facilities, principally where outside investment was been welcomed.

The large mills in the Congo are examples of what can be achieved by good solid management and dedicated technical millers who persevere. The use of imported U.S. wheat into the coastal countries of Western Africa helps to maintain a regular quality.

The small mills of Zambia and Zimbabwe are a delight to work in when they have a regular supply of reasonable quality wheat. But all too often bread quality is compromised because maize flour and sorghum is mixed with wheat flour in an attempt to stretch resources.

The central African countries are not as technologically advanced as some other areas, but they can still produce good flour. With long diagrams that are reminiscent of the days before Entoleters became popular, these mills are lovingly cared for and well maintained. With labor being relatively inexpensive and plentiful, there still remain mill managers prepared to pass on their experience to willing students. Sadly, the AIDS pandemic and Ebola virus have shortened the career of many talented workers.

Storage facilities are a key to successful milling in many parts of Africa, particularly where crops are sparse and climatic conditions are not conducive to major agricultural projects. With government intervention and outside donor assistance, several feasible storage centers have been established where the small milling operations can draw wheat when they require it and, perhaps more importantly, when they have the funds to purchase sensible quantities of supply.

In the African coastal areas, the story tends to be much different, with mills frequently being larger and more modern. They usually enjoy the benefit of better private financing than the mills in central Africa, have a better source of grain — either U.S. or Australian wheat — and have ready access to spare parts.

Many of these port mills have European mill management or maintenance supervision, and almost all have capacities in excess of 1,000 tonnes per day.

With the West African countries being so densely populated, the demand for flour and wheat derivatives is high. The only restriction on supply is the ability of these countries to source the foreign exchange required to purchase wheat, although this in itself has led to many new development projects.

For example, certain mills import wheat from the U.S., process it into flour and sell it locally. They then use the local currency to purchase coffee beans and the like, which are then processed and exported in order to attract the foreign exchange to purchase further supplies of wheat.

The problems associated with operating these port mills are much the same as in the inland mills, with labor being a significant issue. AIDS and other diseases continually deplete the trained workforce, and crime and corruption is also a problem in some areas. Welfare provision is a paramount consideration and transporting employees to and from work is a time-consuming exercise.

Power is unreliable in much of Africa, with one or two exceptions in the south. All mills, without exception, have facilities to generate their own electricity. The majority relies on these facilities to meet a large proportion of their needs. Hence, oil supplies are critical and managing the supply chain for fuel is just as important as sourcing regular supplies of wheat.

With many mills having their own wharfs and deep-water berths alongside their facilities, it is not surprising that wheat boats bring many of the provisions required to operate the mills, acting as a supply line for spare parts, packaging materials and flour additives. Most of these port mill requirements are generally supplied from offshore in containers.

The inland mills are dependent upon road transport for most of their supplies, although many mills now have their own bag-making facilities that supply bags to other industries to offset the capital cost of equipment. With African roads being notoriously bad in some areas, it is not surprising that journey times are prolonged, measured often in weeks rather than days or hours. Hence, planning becomes a major priority, with mill managers having to make plans several months in advance.

Investments in African mills are generally made with the idea that it is better to have far too much capacity rather than too little. In some of the more affluent West African countries, for example, competition is fierce and a new entrant into the market will be unable to compete unless he is able to offer a significant contribution to the market. Thus, a new entrant to the flour milling industry may well consider building mills with capacities of several thousand tonnes per day.

This compensates for the times when wheat is not available, as he must be ready to produce flour and sell it before his competitor when supplies do arrive.

In such circumstances, the miller who has wheat commands the highest price and markets can swing violently in the course of a day, purely on the basis of supply and demand.

This is not a prevalent practice in less volatile regions and government intervention or price control has assisted with market stabilization.

Wherever a mill is situated, the need to run it efficiently is most important and extraction levels are critically monitored. Using bran effectively is also a key to successful economic operation, since getting a good price for bran often leads to novel approaches.

For example, in the central and northwest desert regions there is a large goat and cattle population, often tended by nomadic herdsmen. The lack of thorn bushes in these regions means that the hides from these animals are of excellent quality and it is quite common for a miller to offer free bran in return for a guaranteed supply of top-quality leather. He then processes the leather through his tannery and sells it to the European car manufacturers, who use it in top-ofthe-line car interiors. This is another example of the money-go-round so critical to ensure foreign exchange and continuity of wheat supply.

In the mid-1970s and 80s, several European milling companies entered into management contracts with African milling companies. As a result, machinery emanated from the countries where the management was sourced.

Since most of these contracts have now expired and milling companies have sought to replace equipment, there has been a shift from the English and French milling engineers and there is now more East European equipment being sold in African countries. The reasons for this are mainly associated with price rather than any technical reasons.

In countries where political climates are unstable and an investment may be deemed as "high risk," the capital expenditure is obviously minimized. The Eastern European engineers offer machinery at low prices because their raw materials are cheaper and their labor costs are low. Hence, they are taking a larger share of the market.

However, Uzwil, Switzerland-based Buhler AG still has a sizeable portion of the capital equipment market in areas that are mature and stable.

Africa is a diverse environment that is heavily dependent on the skill and ability of its staff in the hinterland mills. By contrast, the coastal mills tend to have more modern equipment but are sometimes plagued by ill-advised and frivolous investment. South African mills tend to take a much more calculated approach to both investment and technical advances. Investments in debranning technology and the increased use of modern machinery such as modular sifters, superimposed roller mills, booster units and carousel packing equipment are common in South Africa, which is quite different from other areas of this vast and beautiful continent. WG

Jonathan Bradshaw is a consultant to the agribusiness and food processing industries, specializing in project management and bespoke training programs through his company, J B Bradshaw Ltd. He has extensive experience in flour and feed milling in Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean. He may be contacted at: jonathan.

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