January 24, 2015

Ali Habaj - Secretary general and treasurer, IAOM MEA

International Association of Operatives Millers Mideast & Africa District (IAOM MEA) was formed in 1989 and represents flour and feed millers across the Middle East and Africa. Initially, the district was managed by rotating host countries, meaning the head office changed from one country to another. Since 2006, however, there has been a permanent head office in Muscat, Oman. This has helped to standardise operations and allow the association to offer more services to both members and the region.
GFMT spoke to Ali Habaj, secretary general and treasurer, IAOM MEA, about the association and milling in the Middle East and Africa. Habaj is a well suited for a role within IAOM. He has 14 years experience in the milling industry and is the full time CEO of the Atyab Investments Group which manages many firms in the food industries. The portfolio includes Oman Flour Mills, one of the biggest bakeries in the Middle East, Sohor Poultry and a modern poultry farm. Habaj’s current projects include setting up a new pasta factory and a new flour mill in Oman.

What makes IOAM MEA unique?

IAOM MEA has 800 consistent members, making it one of the biggest districts in terms of members. We have quite a diverse group of food and feed industries becoming part of the organisation.
The IAOM MEA conference and expo is different from IAOM meetings in the USA. The USA focuses on technical and operational issues. But at the IAOM MEA expo, the focus is on grain trading and markets. The three-day programme will have two main themes: a technical focus including operations, innovations and management and marketing.

Who will be at the IAOM MEA conference and expo?

We have different kinds of delegates depending on the region targeted. This year the conference and expo will be held in Tunisia to attract the northern African region. We will also have some South African and central African attendees. Having a different location helps attract new millers from different regions.
The expo caters more for senior manager and owners. So the attendees are decision makers mostly. This profile makes IAOM MEA quite different from other IAOM expos. We try to have a 50/50 split between buyers and suppliers.
Authors Paul Roberts (The End of Oil and The End of Food) and Mike Walsh (who writes on future food trends) will be speaking at the IAOM conference in Tunisia.

How has the milling industry developed since IAOM MEA was founded in 1989?

IAOM MEA has had a major impact on milling. The expo is the only place where people can meet every year. It provides a place to get to know the traders, understand the problems in milling and learn which machines to use.
We are ready to go beyond the annual conference by providing continuous education throughout the year and are considering running IAOM courses in local languages.

What are the biggest challenges for your members?

It is the largest region in terms of food imports so food security is a big issue for flour millers. There are a lot of countries, each at different levels, trying to achieve food security. In Africa, access to land to ensure a continuous food supply is an issue.
There are many different solutions and multinationals are involved as well as local companies.
Increasing the storage capacity for grains is also a challenge but countries are working on this issue. In recent years, Kuwait and Oman will add an additional 300,000 tonnes of storage and Qatar is improving its grain storage capacity too.

What have been the biggest successes in the region?

In the last five years there has been a move in the kind of finished products. There is a lot more food processing for example poultry, pasta and goods for bakeries. This trend is going to east Africa. In the feed and flour mills we see a strong focus on food processing and companies that can help finance these projects.
Flour milling is well established throughout the region. It is mostly filling the markets. There are some exports but it is only really Somalia, with its political problems, which needs to import flour.
Imports are more on the specialised side for example, a blend with different types of flours or quality of grain.

Where do products milled in MEA go?

In Africa and the Gulf flour is mainly consumed domestically. In Turkey, government incentives have given Turkish flour a competitive edge. The country exports its flour to Africa, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. One of the reasons why Turkish flour is popular in these countries is because of the low protein content which makes the flour suitable for noodles.

What predictions do you have for the milling industry over the next 10 years?

In the flour market there are three major factors: eating habits, baking and the market. Eating habits and expectation are changing; people are more into carbohydrates.
Bakeries are demanding higher quality and different kind of flours for different breads and pastries. Coffee shops, hotels and airlines are expanding, requiring different flour mixtures.
Mills need to cater for different customers and respond to market demand. Thirty years ago the region produced two flours (brown and white). Today there are 25 kinds of flours.
For the feed industry, there needs to be support for farmers to increase the number of farms. More farmers equals more milling east Africa. Food security is also affecting feed mills but it needs to be organised. Proper farms (particularly poultry farms) need the feed milling industries standing by them.

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