The Lebanese “pasta” is looking for a destiny

Half a century ago, certain Lebanese agro-industrial groups, like the Bakalian flour mills and the confectioner Gandour, tried to make Lebanon a pasta-producing country. Although a priori promising, this momentum was unfortunately shattered by the civil war.

Long forgotten, the idea of ​​meeting the needs of the country, a fairly regular consumer of pasta that has contributed to the culinary influence of Italy and China, is once again attracting some entrepreneurs. A craze reinforced by the crisis in which the country has been sinking for more than two years and which, whether through the insane depreciation of the pound, inflation and the shortage of liquidity in foreign currencies, has made many Lebanese that the country would benefit from limiting its dependence on imports.

The Del Libano plant employs over 40 people. Photo DR

Workshop and factory

Céline Debbané falls into this category. After his daughter gave him a small fresh pasta machine in 2017, part of his apartment in Adma (Kesrouan) was converted into a workshop. Quickly won over by the process, she embarked in 2019 on the creation of PLNTY, a brand of fresh homemade pasta. An initial investment of a few tens of thousands of dollars allows it to acquire new machines designed by the Italian specialist Pama Parsi Macchine, to design and produce its packaging (via the Lebanese Anis Printing) and to buy its first stocks of raw materials. : eggs (Akl farms) and wheat flour provided by Bakalian. “What I offer is a top-of-the-range product, light, of good quality, good for the health and which can be cooked in five minutes”, explains Céline Debbané, who is today capable of producing more than 500 packets. of pasta per month – from three different references at the moment – ​​with a team of three part-time people. On the local market, PLNTY signed an exclusive distribution contract last September with Antoine Massoud SAL establishments and its products are also sold on the Lebzone platform. While new product references are already in preparation – in particular a “vegan” without eggs and with white flour – its brand of fresh pasta is already crossing borders towards Dubai via the Lebanese platform Minbaladeh or even amazon.ae (the portal of the American giant for the Emirati market). Next step: the construction of a factory to increase the brand’s production capacity.

Gudtolli Pasta’s pasta is colored thanks to a recipe based on local flowers. Photo DR

A factory, the Malaeb family has already built one in Bayssour, in the caza of Aley, where it produces six different types of dry pasta – including lasagna – under the Del Libano banner, at a rate of up to 4,000 packets per day. With a substantial investment of “several million dollars” and machinery purchased in Ukraine, the company created in May 2021 took a year to prepare before embarking on the deep end. Its managing director, Salah Malaeb, recalls: “It all started in March 2020 when we were working with charities to prepare batches of food aid. We realized that pasta was one of the most widely distributed foods, but there was no local production. Like the various activities in which our family members were idling due to the crisis and the pandemic, we decided to try the adventure. »

Proteins and colors

Initially, the development model was studied to make pasta with imported flour. “We realized that the durum wheat produced in Lebanon not only did the job but had an interesting protein content (13%, which is within the standards for this type of food), which made us decide to change our gun ‘shoulder,’ continues Salah Malaeb. The facilities are ready in May but it will be necessary to wait until October for Del Libano’s production to pass the course of quality control and can be marketed. “We took the time to carry out tests, train our staff (42 employees and three managers) and increase our production rates. Today, we are able to supply the Lebanese market and we have even started to export some to Liberia and the United Arab Emirates,” explains the director.

In 1953, Vasken Bakalian (center with tinted glasses) showed Lebanese President Camille Chamoun a visit to the pasta factory built by the family business in the Quarantine district. Photo: Bakalian Mills Archive.

Supported between the slots of PLNTY and Del Libano, Leila Khalifé and her baby, Gudtolli Lebanese Fresh Pasta, continue on their merry way. Finalist with this project during the last edition of the “Femme francophone entrepreneure” (FFE) of 2021, among other competitions, she now produces 60 to 70 kg of fresh colored pasta thanks to a concoction made from local flowers and other plants. “I launched my company in September 2020 to start producing last May,” she explains. Forced to increase its production and recruit extras, it counts among its clients a hospital, as well as the Lebanese Beirut Airport Catering Company SAL (LBACC), a joint venture owned by Middle East Airlines and which is the restaurateur / caterer of record. from Beirut International Airport. His order book also includes hotels and restaurants. “The exposure and the expertise obtained during my participation in the FFE prize gave me a big boost,” she says.

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For these three entrepreneurs, the need to produce locally has become obvious with the crisis. “The crisis has shown that Lebanon can no longer rely on trade and services to survive. We need more industries, where possible, ”insists Salah Malaeb. But even with good quality products, there is still a long way to go before Lebanese pasta can really make its way onto plates around the world. “Even leaving aside the structural problems specific to Lebanese industry – energy cost, infrastructure failures, total lack of state support, to name but three – it is difficult to imagine that Lebanon can compete with the giants of the sector whose yields, which are counted in millions of tons, allow them to be much more competitive”, estimates an expert working for a large company. “On the other hand, in a niche market or by surfing the diaspora, there may be a place to take, provided that the quality of the products is maintained,” he adds.

Profitability and imports

Another issue is profitability. “Margins on pasta are lower than those of other neighboring products,” further believes the expert. According to a second source well acquainted with the matter, it is this point that convinced the Daher Food group (which notably manufactures Master brand chips) to postpone its project to build a factory indefinitely. of pasta of 15,000 m² in the Bekaa, yet announced in the press in 2017. Contacted, the group did not answer our questions.

For his part, Salah Malaeb recognizes that the margins are not necessarily spectacular for an industrialist. “In Lebanon, where I have to keep prices rather low to be able to offer an affordable product in times of crisis, my margin is 9% and my prices are 50% lower than those of Italian brands,” he says. he. Same story with the two other players in the sector who, with specific prices for each of their products and in line with their ranges, prefer for the moment to unite their respective brands rather than to optimize revenue per package.

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While it is still too early to confirm that these strategies will pay off in the long term, no factor seems to doom them to failure. Although small in size, the Lebanese market seems large enough to accommodate a handful of local players. In 2020, the country imported more than 41,000 tons of pasta, a number up sharply (+51.5%) compared to the nearly 27,200 tons in 2019. This latter total falls within the usual range observed by customs since at least 2014. Even if no causal link has been formally demonstrated, the sharp increase in imports in 2021 should be put into perspective with the introduction, in the spring of the same year, of a mechanism subsidies on imports of certain basic foodstuffs, including pasta.

Half a century ago, certain Lebanese agro-industrial groups, like the Bakalian flour mills and the confectioner Gandour, tried to make Lebanon a pasta-producing country. Although a priori promising, this momentum was unfortunately shattered by the civil war. Long forgotten, the idea of ​​ensuring the needs of the country, a fairly regular consumer of…

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