BY Zahara Zuhair
A simple product that needs a great deal of skill, effort, time, knowledge and technical capacities is how Serendib Flour Mills (SFML), a leader in manufacturing wheat flour products in Sri Lanka, described its flagship brand Seven Star Flour.
SFML Chief Executive Officer Kevin O’Leary said that they are able to deliver quality and consistent products with every single batch of flour that they produce.
While promising quality products, he said that it is also versatile, purpose-oriented, affordable and certain varieties such as fortified flour are enriched with essential vitamins and minerals.
They said that different types of wheat are brought to Sri Lanka from wheat-producing countries such as Canada, Australia, the USA and Russia, whereas 240,000 metric tonnes of wheat are milled annually at their mill.
“We bring about 25,000-30,000 metric tonnes every five to six weeks,” an SFML official said.
The company, one of the two flour manufacturing companies in Sri Lanka (other one Prima), recently organised a media tour for the second time since it started operations in 2008 providing an overview of how the production is done from ship unloading to packing.
Walking us through the process, SFML Chief Technical Officer Mark Healing, a fifth generation miller, explained how the wheat is brought to the top floor of the building (12th floor) once it is unloaded from the ship, which is the first step of the whole process. For the unloading purposes, the mill is equipped with two pneumatic ship unloaders, each having capacity to unload 300 metric tonnes per hour.
It was noted that shipments of wheat are pre-cleaned when they arrive at the facility.
“The pipe sucks the wheat from the ship and it comes to the top of the building. Then it is put in storage silos, which look like circular bins. We have 18 bulk silos, each hosting 3,000 metric tonnes of wheat, and 10 star silos with a capacity of storing 800 metric tonnes. We can store total 600,000 metric tonnes of wheat here,” he said.
It can store up to 4,000 metric tonnes of finished products, out of which 3,200 metric tonnes are used to store wheat flour.
He said that Canadian wheat is very strong, which contains high protein and is good for baker’s flour (bread flour) and Australian wheat is suitable for noodles.
“We also blend wheat according to the flavour. For example, it could be 50 percent of Australian and 50 percent Canadian,” he said.
Their products include baker’s flour, household flour, rotti flour, biscuit flour, wholemeal flour, noodle flour, atta flour, cake flour and semolina.
It was noted that a preparation time of 24 hours is required prior to milling. They said that the wheat varieties are blended to achieve consistency and then the initial cleaning commences to remove large stones, straw and other impurities. The wheat is then tempered with conditioned water, a crucial step in the production process, and the water toughens the bran and prevents it from shattering during milling.
“All wheat varieties are then brought to the same moisture level and are soaked for up to 24 hours. Thereafter, another round of cleaning is done to remove smaller impurities and the wheat is weighted and taken to the factory floor,” they noted.
The milling process, which commences thereafter, is considerably complex, according to them.
“Once the wheat grains have been tempered with water, they gently break open without being damaged and fluted roller mills help to remove the flour in large particles. The mill is fully automated and each part of the process is managed from our central control room,” Healing said.
Once the large particles of flour have been extracted, he said that they begin a gradual reduction process, which involves grinding and sieving the flour into more refined particles. “The sieving takes place in 48 large industrial sieves known as plan sifters. The refining process changes based on the type of flour we are milling. Wholemeal flour and atta flour for instance undergo less refinement,” he said.
Then, he said they collect batches of flour and blend them together before sending them to their on-site laboratory for testing.
At the quality assurance room, it was highlighted that the moisture level of the product should be 13.5 at the time of dispatching and thereafter, the shelf life is six months.
He said if the samples are approved, the flour is stored in silos and sent for packaging. It was noted that packing of the flour is done in two packing lines, at a rate of 13-14 bags per minute.
Finally, based on the customer requirements, the flour is packaged in one, 25 or 50 kilogramme formats and prepared for local and global distribution.
They noted that one tonne of wheat grains usually yield 75 percent of flour and the bran and wheat germ, which are left over, are used to make animal feed products. They noted that they export animal feed to countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Bangladesh, etc., bringing foreign exchange to the country.
When it comes to exporting flour, they said that the Maldives is one of their main export markets. “Previously it was Indonesia, which was a huge market, the fifth largest population in the world. Now it has come to a standstill for restrictions. Indonesia has 27-30 mills; they restricted importing bringing in the safeguard tax. As a result, 20 percent tax is going from Sri Lanka. So now exports to Indonesia is almost zero,” SFML Head of Marketing and Communication Kalinga Wijesekara said.
Further, it was noted that that the whole process is fully automated, where they use the latest Buhler Swiss Technology. They have a workforce consisting 120 employees, which includes 50 from the production side.
Meanwhile, Wijesekara said that they face two main challenges, which are price control by the government and the world wheat market price.
“One thing is the wheat prices in the world market keep changing depending on the supply and demand. Since it’s an essential product, the government has price control. So we can’t raise prices, if the world raw material goes up,” he said.
Though they started with zero market share eight years ago, he said that by now they have taken up 25 percent of market share giving a good competition to their competitor.
“On the other hand, the consumer has a choice today. Previously they had no choice; they had to buy only one product. We want to further develop this market, bring more value-added products. You saw the all purpose flour, these are new development we have done, consistently we are looking at developing new products with technology,” he imparted.
The company is also taking measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as water and energy consumption and will be implementing a carbon footprint reduction programme in the near future across its operations. In addition to that, they also noted that they work closely with the Health Ministry, whereas they said that they add iron and folic acid to the products, taking away that cost from the customer.
“Because there is a shortage in iron among children and folic acid among pregnant mothers, specially in the estate sector,” they said.
SFML is a joint venture between Al Ghurair Foods (AGF) and Emirates Trading Agency (ETA). It has developed and implemented an integrated management system (IMS) based on ISO 9001:2008, ISO 14001:2004, BS OHSAS 18001:2007 and ISO 22000:2005 requirements.