Grain market importance of Middle East

30 May, 2015 01:00 AM
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ASIA may be the talk of the agriculture world, but the middle of the world markets in Africa and the Middle East are where the grain supply competition is being fought and won.

CBH began focusing on the Middle East and Africa region three years ago, putting grain marketer Sean Cowman at the helm of its operations in the region.

While his appointment marked the first time CBH had directed resources solely for that region, the market is in no way new to WA or Australia for grain exporting.

In 2013/14, Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Sudan ranked in the top 10 countries to which Australia exported grain.

The region sourced more than six million tonnes of wheat from Australia in that 12-month period.

Its slice of the wheat supply pie sat at 39 per cent of all exports in 2012/13, 32pc in 2013/14 and at 23pc of wheat exported so far from October last year.

By the end of the century, Africa is expected to quadruple its population to more than four billion and the Middle East's population growth rate remains one of the highest in the world.

"The Australian wheat industry is still maturing from a marketing perspective, post-deregulation" Mr Cowman said.

"We've only been in this new era for a limited period of time.

"We're still developing these markets and building on our strengths and the market is always evolving."

Mr Cowman said it made sense for Australia to take advantage of its geographical location to Asia and focus resources on this market, but it was important to diversify.

Selling Australia's grain to Middle Eastern buyers was about its qualities rather than just price.

With tough competition coming out of the Black Sea, Europe, Canada and the United States, the Middle East and Africa required more attention in developing and maintaining markets than did selling into established markets such as Indonesia, where Australia supplied almost 4mt of wheat alone in 2013/14.

"South East Asia is a region we want to protect more and more because the Middle East will come under more threat as a market as the Black Sea continues to emerge," Mr Cowman said.

"Australian wheat has a long history and favourable reputation in Middle Eastern and African markets where for example major private importers in Sudan and Egypt have developed their mills around Australian wheat qualities, while in Yemen a substantial quantity of grain is sold unmilled to end consumers who prefer the golden colour of Australian grain.

"There is growing potential for wheat exports to Saudi Arabia with changes in their agricultural policy driving down their domestic production in favour of imports.

"These will increase to 3.6mmt by 2016, which is business that did not exist six years ago.

"Australian wheat will find it more and more difficult to compete on price with the Black Sea, (so) we have to rely on our appeal and qualities."

Mr Cowman began mapping the Middle East Africa market for the first time three years ago, as CBH left its reliance on supplying the big multinational buyers and looked for the end users, the people who ultimately buy from the big players.

However, as many would expect, navigating the world of African and Middle Eastern cultures and government controls has been a cause of constant adaptation.

"We identified Iraq very early on as somewhere that we wanted to get direct access," Mr Cowman said.

"It took us quite a while because of the loopholes and getting an appropriate local representation and the tender system proved to be rather complex.

"It can be a minefield in terms of the systems dealing with contracts.

"But it's worth the effort as it's a very important market for Australia because they have a preference for our wheat because of its functionality.

"Unlike South East Asia, the flour is used for flat breads, in Iraq the breads are cooked traditionally on the side of clay ovens so the gluten of the dough is very important and Australian wheat gluten is favoured.''

He acknowledged countries such as Iraq, Yemen or Sudan were not high on the tourist list and subsequently were not high on the list for WA growers in terms of knowing their grain is supplied to the market.

This year, CBH supplied its first ever bulk wheat shipment into Tanzania and Mozambique in East Africa which came about by building relationships.

"We've supplied into East Africa indirectly in the past, but this relationship was built by understanding how grain moves throughout Africa and that some buyers may source from a larger importer but not always buy direct from Australia," he said.

"A lot of these big buyers in difficult markets to visit such as Sudan and Yemen are still reliant on the international community and as buyers they will make more of an effort to see you and often they will travel to places like Dubai to meet face to face.

"We will use local representation if we're unable to visit the market, but still want reliable representatives and information coming back."

Mr Cowman said Kuwait is another market where Australian wheat is king, and where very little is ever sourced from other origins and about 400,000t is imported annually.

"Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and Kuwait are markets that are buying Australian wheat every year and it's not just markets that we've developed, they are developing markets, their growth is significant in terms of population," he said.

"Kuwait buys only Australian wheat and that's something Australian farmers should protect as few markets only buy one origin."

As he has mapped the Middle East and Africa markets, Mr Cowman has been able to take some WA growers on tour to visit the other end of the supply chain.

He said the outcomes of these trips always provided growers with more of an open mind and understanding of the region they visit.

"People's perceptions change after the first day and they have often under-estimated the potential for Australia to supply grain to the region," Mr Cowman said.

"Every country does business in its own way, it important to understand these requirements and nuances and how you conduct yourself appropriately.

"But you can see the growers realise exactly why CBH is putting such a focus on these countries."

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