(Left to Right) Rémi Maréchaux, ambassador of France, Frank Capdevielle, vice president of Merieux Nu-triSciences, Belete Beyene, founder of Bless, Adeline Lescanne-Gautier, general manager of Nutriset

A family-owned company in the nutritional food industry has partnered with a French company in Bless-Agri Food Laboratory Services Plc, eying the fight against malnutrition in Ethiopia.

Safir, an affiliate of the French manufacturer Nutriset, has secured a stake in Bless-Agri Food Laboratory Services Plc, significantly owned by the Belete Beyen family. The one million Euro deal sees Safir acquiring 15pc of the company's shares, marking the second significant alliance between Nutriset and the Family enterprise in the past 15 years.

Safir, itself a joint venture between the Nutriset Group, which holds the trademark for PlumpyNut; Mérieux NutriSciences; and BPI France, France’s public investment bank, focuses on fostering and financing projects that bridge public health, nutrition, and agriculture in Africa.

The new deal was formally announced last week at the French Embassy. Rémi Maréchaux, France's ambassador to Ethiopia, highlighted the history of collaborations between Nutriset and the Belete Family while applauding the quality of their production process.

"French companies have shown great interest in Ethiopia," said Ambassador Maréchaux, referring to the presence of nearly 40 companies such as BGI-Ethiopia, Boortmalt and Soufflet. "They aren't looking for quick profit but aim to establish long term relationships with their counterparts."

Safir's lead partner in Ethiopia, Belete Beyene, is a seasoned veteran in the domestic nutritional foods landscape with a remarkable five-decade career. He once managed Faffa Foods Complex during the military Derg regime. He was also behind launching "Dube", a popular flour brand during the last years of the military government.

Belete later ventured into Hilina Enriched Foods in the late 1990s. Incorporated in 1998, the company, named after his daughter who now manages it, began as a salt iodising plant but pivoted to providing roasting services for chickpeas and soybeans after Ethiopia lost access to the Port of Assab, leading to a significant salt supply shortfall.

The political turmoil between Ethiopia and Eritrea interrupted almost all of Ethiopia’s salt production, forcing the country to eventually shift its focus to neighbouring Djibouti.

In 2006, a new opportunity arose when UNICEF approached Hilina Enriched Foods to produce relief food upon specifications. This prompted Belete to contact Nutriset, which holds patents for multiple nutritional foods, resulting in a fruitful alliance.

Malnutrition poses a severe challenge in Ethiopia, with staggering statistics revealing that 38pc of children under five are stunted, and over 23.6pc are underweight. According to UNICEF, 9.9pc of children under five are affected by wasting, while 22pc of women aged 15-49 years are undernourished. The iodine shortage has caused widespread health issues, including mental retardation and reproductive failure.

Hilina Enriched Foods, with annual revenues of about 30 million dollars from its production of PlumpyNut, Plumpy Sup, and Dimbich, is playing a vital role in rehabilitating undernourished children. Apart from supplying UN agencies and various international not-for-profit organisations with nutritional supplements, the company also retails to the general public. PlumpyNut, a peanut-based paste for treating severe acute malnutrition, is the most widely consumed nutritional food globally.

Incorporated in 2011, Bless Food Laboratory has been jointly owned by the Family (51pc) and Onyx Development, an affiliate of the French Nutriset. It provides inspection, certification, and food shelf life assessment services, having received accreditation from the Ethiopia Standards Institute (ESI).

Using advanced laboratory facilities in Legetafo town, on the city's northeastern outskirts, the company issues standard certificates for honey, meat, beverage, and dairy products. It gives an ES stamp, which qualifies it for consumption, following rigorous environmental, and microbiological testing and nutritional tests. Bless Food Laboratory, managed by Birhan Awoke, also trains manufacturing plant managers on enhancing quality production.

Belete expressed optimism during the partnership announcement, noting that Bless Laboratories stands to gain from the technical, industrial, and management expertise of Safir and its affiliates, particularly from Mérieux NutriSciences in food testing.

Frank Capdevielle, vice president for the Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific at Merieux NutriSciences, echoed this sentiment, underscoring that the joint venture will bring technical expertise while cultivating human resources – "a company's most valuable asset."

Experts urge the importance of food inspection and certifications in ensuring food quality cannot be overstated.

Hiwot Tadesse, former food inspection director for the Ethiopian Food & Drugs Authority (EFDA), who now serves as a food certifications expert at the World Food Programme (WFP). She stressed that inadequate nutrition could severely affect development and health, hence the need to expand certification facilities.

"Investing in food laboratories is critical to ensuring food standards," Hiwot told Fortune.

She applauded Bless Food Laboratory for carrying out duties entrusted by the Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise (ECAE) in combating malnutrition.

The joint venture underlines a trend of public and private sectors working together to address malnutrition and food safety challenges. By overseeing the distribution of 46 items within the country, Bless Food Laboratory contributes to averting the wastage of potentially unsafe food.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 17,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1207]

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