Greenwheat Freekeh has used home grown technology to become the world’s biggest supplier of a genuine superfood.
When mechanical and petroleum engineer, Tony Lutfi, sat down to a private meal with Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, he could never have imagined it would lead to a career in the food industry.
The then Crown Prince served freekeh, an ancient grain common in the Middle East. While Tony was taken by the taste, he says it was the nutritional benefits that captured his attention.
“He said to me, they know it’s healthy, but they don’t know why. It’s processed in a very primitive way – the same way they did it many thousands of years ago – and the consequent grain is full of stone and rocks.”
As well as describing it as a boon for Middle Eastern dentists, Prince Hassan saw another opportunity.
Tony continues, “He said to me that if someone ever developed a process to make freekeh by modern automated means, it would be a great commercial opportunity.”
Fast forward to today and the State Government has just awarded Greenwheat Freekeh a $900,000 Regional Development Fund grant to build a new plant and expand their processing capacity from the current 500 tonnes a year to between 2,500 and 3,000 tonnes by 2018.
“What we have is an understanding that at a precise stage of maturity, the grain – any grain – is far superior in nutritional value and taste than when it matures. We have created a neat process that enables us to capture that and keep it that way.”
Demand for Greenwheat Freekeh is such that until 2011, they could only meet export demand from 12 countries including Dubai, Spain, The Netherlands and Singapore. Their local growth, from partnering with food manufacturing giants such as McCain, San Remo, McKenzie’s and Safcol, continues to be exponential – making it both a windfall and a challenge.
“All of our partners put our logo on their packaging. This is quite unusual in Australia that a small company can achieve such a cobranding arrangement… but we offer something unique and very substantial… that gives the manufacturer a great competitive advantage in a very crowded market.”
The need for a processing facility is pressing. Freekeh means ‘the rubbed one’ in Aramaic and, as such, applies to the process not the grain. The company has been experimenting here with processing barley, triticale and oats. At the end of this year, Tony is travelling to Malaysia, where he has an agreement in place to begin producing green rice freekeh.
The benefits for South Australia’s farmers and the economy are potentially high, hence the grant.
Freekeh uses green grain harvested relatively early in its growth stage. This means that many of the usual risks are mitigated and spraying costs are also reduced. As well, Greenwheat Freekeh harvests the grain and injects price stability in a volatile commodity market which achieves for the farmer during many years a reasonable premium.
As the freekeh is considered a processed food, it also opens up markets that are otherwise closed to Australian wheat farmers. These markets – in particular the US, Canada, UK and Brazil – are among the company’s biggest. Tony says the value adding is considerable.
“We take the grain for around $300 or $400 a tonne and Greenwheat Freekeh’s value adds to the grain allow us to then sell it at a weighted average price of $3,400 a tonne. We are so much in demand that we now presell almost all of our production before we make it.”
“DW Fox Tucker has been helpful to us… They have considerable knowledge and that knowledge complements our needs… They’ve also provided introductions to various parties.”
Some of these introductions have been around licensing of the technology.
“At the time we weren’t ready because I was a little reluctant to do things for fear of breach of security of our intellectual property. But it is something I’d like to pursue with Sandy again. The timing is good: we have been developing more automation, computerisation and integration, which will lend a great deal of safety to our IP.”
There has been a clamour for licensing agreements from overseas companies. However, Tony wants to start with Australia before going global.
“Just so we are closer to the action and know what’s going on…”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT GREENWHEAT FREEKEH:
Call: +61 8 8221 5022