Earlier this year, World Grain interviewed KFMB’s longtime top production executive, Abdulla Al Wahaibi. He spoke openly about the company, which employs nearly 4,000 and is the country’s lone wheat flour producer.
Milling in Kuwait got its start around the time of Kuwait’s independence from Britain in 1961 with majority private and minority government investment in a 120-tonne-per-day Simon Robinson mill with a silo.
Today, nearly all KFMB’s milling and grain storage operations are at a single 50,000-square-meter site on the Al Shuwaikh port in Kuwait City. The complex houses six milling lines totaling 2,850 tonnes of daily capacity. The two newest are 750 tonnes per day supplied by Ocrim in 2008 and Buhler in 2017. The latter sold its first milling equipment to Kuwait in 1972. A recently expanded feed mill can produce 500 tonnes per day of a wide range of animal feed products. KFMB has total storage capacity of 375,000 tonnes at the port in concrete elevators.
“This is the biggest grain storage at one single location in the Middle East,” observed Al Wahaibi, adding “there are three sections or complexes for wheat, yellow maize and barley. The tallest has a cell height of 59 meters.”
KFMB’s food security role hinges on the large stocks it holds. Sufficient wheat to meet four to six months of consumption is kept on hand as a strategic reserve, he noted. A two- to three-month supply of corn and barley for feed is maintained as well. USDA data show Kuwait’s wheat imports have been stable, averaging just under 500,000 tonnes annually over the last five years. The nation’s combined imports of barley and corn for feed have been as high as 800,000 tonnes per year, Al Wahaibi said.
Australia is the sole wheat source with the exception of about 50,000 to 60,000 tonnes of durum and CWRS normally imported from Canada for pasta and high protein bread. One swing mill is utilized for semolina. Corn and barley originate in Argentina, Australia and the Black Sea.
Panamax-sized vessels 225 meters in length first offload two or three holds at deeper Gulf ports before proceeding to Kuwait City at the Gulf’s northern end where the draft is only 9.6 meters, limiting the maximum wheat delivery to 46,000 tonnes. There is a single berth but 400- and 600-tonne per-hour ship unloaders permit offloading at 1,000 tonnes per hour and rapid vessel turnaround.
Photo courtesty of Bühler.
The bulk of flour production is for the main food staple, pita type Arabian flat bread weighing 50 to 75 grams each. KFMB’s own bakeries produce 4.5 million pieces per day. They are sold in packages of five at a fixed government price of just 50 to 75 fils (17¢ to 25¢).
Al Wahaibi estimates the sales price represents about 50% of the production cost. The Kuwaiti government provides a direct subsidy so that KFMB can carry out this social welfare policy and make a small profit as well. Over half of flour production is for pita bread.
KFMB operates a central bakery that consumes about 100 tonnes per day for production of European style rolls, buns and toast bread. McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut and Subway are just a few of the numerous international fast-food restaurant chains in Kuwait that depend on KFMB to reliably supply standard baked foods or specialty flour to exacting specifications.
Around 15% of production is a highly refined white “patent” flour used for making cakes and pastries, Al Wahaibi said. KFMB can export about 60% of this non-subsidized flour to other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that form a tariff-free zone. Demand is highest in neighboring Saudi Arabia, especially during the period leading up to Ramadan.
Shipments of various flour types through Kuwait-based traders to Iraq have been climbing as well despite the financial and security challenges of dealing with the war-torn country. Basra, a major Iraqi city only 180 kilometers distant, is the main destination.
Al Wahaibi attributes his company’s export success to “high quality wheat, top milling technology and strong quality control standards and efficient sales team.” The company grinds a wide assortment of flour types both for its own use, for small package retail sale in stores and for the hundreds of small private bakers in the country. Brown flour, white flour, biscuit flour, flatbread flour, whole wheat flour, barley bread flour, chappati flour and pastries and logaimat flour are all featured on the company’s website, in addition to crushed wheat and peeled wheat. The executive said KFMB may have the only bakery in the Middle East making gluten-free goods like toast bread, buns and rolls. He said such a product line stems more from KFMB’s social consciousness than a desire to add to its bottom line, since demand is limited and the cost of grinding alternatives to wheat is high.
Another example of the company’s social responsibility is its early adoption of fortification of its flour and wheat-based products in line with GCC standards for iron, folic acid and other vitamins and minerals.
Though pita bread is the key staple food consumed by most households daily, KFMB still faces the management challenge of seasonal demand. Because of the extreme summer heat exceeding 45 degrees Celsius most days from May to September, Al Wahaibi explained, a good part of Kuwait’s population, including the heavy proportion of expatriates, leave the country for extended periods, necessitating a 40% to 50% reduction in output.
KFMB has devoted resources to build a well-recognized logo and “KFMB” brand name across its broad range of wheat-based retail products, including flour, pita bread, toast bread and buns, pasta and biscuits. Packaged cooking oil refined from imported soybean oil, corn oil and sunflower oil also carry the KFMB logo.
“We have been named one of the top 100 brands in the Middle East,” Al Wahaibi noted.
“In general, the strategic growth of the company will be in feed milling,” he said. “We will expand our current animal feed capacity from 500 tonnes per day to 1,500 tonnes per day and eventually to 3,000 tonnes.”
The company makes mixed feed from bran, corn and barley for sheep, goats, camels, cows and horses, according to government-approved formulas. It also sells yellow corn, wheat bran and other raw materials to the country’s large integrated poultry producers with their own feed mills.
Greater feed production capacity is needed to support livestock breeding at home.
|KFMB’s longtime top production executive, Abdulla Al Wahaibi.|
“Our barley and corn imports will have to increase from the current levels” of 50,000 tonnes of barley – 20,000 tonnes respectively per month, he asserted.
Most sheep and goats consumed in the country are imported on the hoof by sea. Kuwait was the first country to import live sheep from Australia in converted automobile transport ships. Saudi Arabia has followed suit. Most of the imported animals are fattened and slaughtered leading up to the Muslim feast holidays.
A more humane but probably less economical approach would be to raise the animals locally. However, Kuwait has limited grazing during its short and intermittently rainy winters. More feed production is needed. In addition to the subsidized fuel, electricity, water and flour available to all consumers, the state provides ration cards to its citizens. They make up only 30% to 40% of the total population due to the large number of immigrant workers.
Kuwait imports live sheep from Australia that are sold locally for $160 to $180. Kuwaitis get monthly ration cards that contain rice, cooking oil, skim powdered milk, pulses and frozen chicken at a subsidized price.
Feed production is an opportunity, but the No. 1 task of KFMB is to continue to expand milling and baking capacity to satisfy the needs of a still growing population, Al Wahaibi said. More bakeries will be launched. The company is looking to add 20,000 to 30,000 square meters of land adjacent to its site to make room for new plant operations. Other challenges include mechanization and automation of production processes in part to reduce dependency on expatriate workers. For every Kuwaiti employee of KFMB there are 20 non-Kuwaitis. The largest contingent come from Egypt followed by India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
KFMB has a colorful history resulting in part from its proximity to Iraq. The company converted to 100% government ownership in 1987. The next year Kuwait Bakeries Company was merged into it. Sadam Hussein’s conquest and annexation of Kuwait as Iraq’s 19th province was just two years later in August 1990. During the seven months of occupation an Iraqi manager was appointed to run the company, the wheat stores were emptied, and much flour production was diverted northwards as well. Before it could be put into production, a recently commissioned vegetable oil refinery was dismantled and shipped to a city in northern Iraq never to be returned.
Following the Iraq War of 2003, the UN World Food Programme contracted with KFMB to store and supply wheat and produce flour and other products for humanitarian distribution in Iraq.
Since then with KFMB as a national anchor of food security, Kuwait has continued to be a stabilizing force in the region.