French grain giant Soufflet has greatly increased its handling capacity and efficiency at France’s second largest grain port, La Rochelle, with the opening earlier this year of a new silo.

The new facility, at Chef de Baie in La Rochelle’s deepwater port of La Pallice, will increase efficiency, and cut energy use and emissions. The location of La Rochelle, on France’s Atlantic Coast, means the port is well located to serve export markets in Africa, in particular.

Soufflet is a French, family-owned food group that operates globally, focusing on the wheat, barley and pulses sectors. It is the biggest family-owned, on-farm buyer of cereals in Europe and operates on the international cereal markets through its Soufflet Négoce subsidiary.

Soufflet announced that the new silo had been put into operation on March 30, 2018, following an inauguration ceremony held at the site on March 23. It was the culmination of a process that started with the laying of the first stone on Oct. 9, 2015, and the investment of €32 million ($37 million).

Soufflet describes exporting the output of French farmers as its historic vocation. Its trading arm, Soufflet Négoce, is one of France’s biggest grain exporters, having been responsible for 20% of French grain exports in 2016-17. It exports to 69 countries around the world.

France had to rebuild its exports in 2017-18 after suffering a poor wheat harvest in 2016-17.

“2017-18 can largely be considered a return to normal in terms of production after the significant decline in the wheat crop in France, the E.U.’s largest exporter of grain, in 2016-17,” a report by USDA attachés in the E.U. said. “However, the same cannot be said for exports. The E.U.-28 has faced significant competition on export markets, notably from Russia and Black Sea origins, as well as currency pressure. Indeed, E.U.-28 wheat exports are currently expected to be lower year-on-year as well as below previous expectations. This would be the lowest wheat export volume for five years.”

According to the International Grains Council (IGC), total E.U. wheat exports went from 33.8 million tonnes in 2015-16, down to 26.4 million in 2016-17, falling further to 22.2 million in 2017-18. In contrast to the expectation of recovery, predicted in March, the IGC, making its estimates in August after a dry summer, now forecasts E.U. 2018-19 exports at 22 million tonnes, a cut from its forecast at the end of July of 24 million. France was affected, in particular, by wet spring weather.

Better location

In remarks quoted by the French agency AFP at the time of the opening, Jean-François Rabu, director of Socomac La Rochelle, the Soufflet subsidiary that operates the new terminal, called its location, right on the dock, its main advantage, explaining that previously the company had used a shuttle system of trucks, operating from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., to take grain to ships.

“We will be able to load at rates more than double what we had before,” Jean-Michel Soufflet, chairman of Soufflet’s executive board, told AFP. Loading costs would be cut and productivity improved.

“The goal is to improve productivity and better serve our customers, because we will have more competitive costs of loading and we will have the opportunity to better clean our grain,” he said.

Jean-François Rabu of Socomac said the facility will ship 80% to countries outside the European Union, with most exports destined for West Africa, a response to the rise of the African flour milling sector.

“Angola, which was buying flour last year, today buys wheat,” he said. “Ivorians are looking at Argentinean wheats, as Angola buys German wheat rich in protein.”

Reuters quoted Jean-Francois Lepy, managing director of Soufflet Négoce, the company’s trading division, as saying that the terminal will allow the company to sort grain more carefully and therefore better satisfy millers. Soufflet had to cut costs to keep French wheat competitive with origins like Russia, but the key is to improve quality.

“If we don’t work on quality, then we’ll lose the race against the Black Sea region,” he told the agency. “Our wheat needs to have an inherent quality that meets the international standard, which is now 12.5% protein Russian wheat. If we move higher in quality terms, then there won’t be such pressure to compete directly on price.”

Lepy also stressed the need to improve farming practices to achieve long-term gains in quality.

The company said there are two objectives behind its decision to construct the new silo at Chef de Baie. It is designed to develop the group’s activities in terms of quality and quantity and to reinforce the competitivity of the French grains sector.

With the new silo, which has a capacity of 63,000 tonnes, Soufflet’s storage capacity at La Rochelle has risen to 188,000 tonnes. The new investment means a big increase in throughput, with three reception bays each with a capacity of 9,000 tonnes a day. There is a gantry that can load vessels at the rate of 1,200 tonnes an hour and will be in service 24 hours a day, making it possible to load 24,000 tonnes a day, rather than 15,000 before the new silo was opened.

The new silo’s location, directly next to the quayside, makes a considerable increase in productivity possible, because the grain is loaded directly onto ships.

The new silo also will help the group to ensure quality. The grain is distributed in 32 storage cells. Physical and chemical analyses are carried out when it comes in to make sure that grain conforms to the standards of buyers in importing countries in aspects like an absence of insects and chemical residues.

Soufflet has been exporting around 1.6 million tonnes a year of grain from La Rochelle. Its objective is to raise that figure to 2 million a year.

Also, the Chef de Baie silo is equipped with all the necessary systems to ensure work safety of personnel, the number of which will increase to 22 people from 16. In addition, thanks to the new silo, 45 additional jobs will be created at the port, including 10 directly working on the site.

The silo’s site, at La Pallice, the deep-water port of La Rochelle, is ideal for exports of breadmaking wheat and, to a lesser extent, feed grains (barley). The Atlantic Coast area of France, in which the port is located, has a climate, soil and agricultural practices that are well suited to producing high quality bread wheat. It is well placed to serve the markets of Africa and the Middle East, regions that represent 45% of the world’s grain trade. Bread wheat consumption in Africa alone is rising by 1.7 million tonnes a year, according to Soufflet, and the extra consumption is being served by a rise in imports.

The port also is positioned ideally between the north and the west of Europe. The port is two or three days sailing from Hamburg, for example. It is also near to the Mediterranean destination, being six days sailing time from Algiers and the Atlantic coast of Africa, with 14 days sailing time to the Gulf of Guinea. It has the capacity to take vessels that can carry cargoes of 80,000 tonnes.

Environmental advantages

The silo’s location is designed to optimize the logistics chain. With a journey of a kilometer from the previous facilities to the quayside, it was taking 50,000 truck journeys a year to transfer the grain. The new facility means that two-thirds of those journeys will be eliminated. There has been a reconsideration of the rest of the logistics chain, with use of rail likely to double. The changes will mean a significant cut in the site’s carbon emissions.

The project fits in with Soufflet’s objective to reduce its energy consumption by 10% in the period 2015 to 2020. One way to do this is to optimize transport, in particular by developing river and rail transport, which has a more favorable environmental impact, thereby cutting Carbon dioxide emissions.

Soufflet sees the new silo as integral to its Corporate Social Responsibility program. As well as the cut in truck journeys in the port, it helps by using high quality materials to optimize energy use in the silo itself, improving fire safety and improving the collection of water, which is treated before return to the environment.

Innovations in the new silo include a grain cleaning system that includes dust extraction designed to preserve air quality. The ship loading area also has an extraction and filtration system that significantly reduces dust levels during loading. Extraction systems are also being installed in the older silos, while there are also dust removal systems in the grain transporting areas (road and rail) and in the grain handling systems in the silo itself.

The site is being landscaped with trees, while the silo itself has been painted a light color to minimize its visual impact.