“Today, farmers understand the value of quality supply”
Hilina Belete is the General Manager of Hilina Enriched Foods PLC. The company is noted for producing nutritious products for children facing severe acute malnutrition for more than two decades. Hilina reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on the company’s history, on partnership and living by its corporate social responsibility mantra and its long-term vision. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Tell me about Hilina Enriched Foods?
Hilina Belete: Hilina Enriched Foods was established in 1998 as a salt iodizing plant. When Ethiopia lost the Port of Assab, the market had a big gap of iodized salt back then. Hilina Foods was founded to fill this specific gap but later diversified to providing roasting services for chickpeas, soybeans and other grains.
In 2006, UNICEF approached our founder and introduced the new product they were importing from France to treat Severe Acute Malnutrition in Children. At the time, UNICEF was airlifting this product to respond to emergencies and they were keen to source the product locally if there was a manufacturer who can produce according to their specifications. Having had the factory set up & the rich experience in relief foods manufacturing, we contacted the French company, Nutriset, which holds the patent for the product. Nutriset management immediately responded and agreed to come & see our facility and discuss franchise arrangements. Our challenge was the investment capital because the equipment was very expensive for a startup.
We shared this challenge to UNICEF and told them the investment was bigger than our reach at the time. However, when UNICEF’s donor saw our commitment and Nutriset’s acceptance for a franchise, she stepped up and offered to pay for the equipment and asked us to pay UNICEF in kind once we start the production. In 2007 February, we managed to inaugurate the factory, the first Ready to Use Therapeutic Food Production in the region. We had 40MT per month capacity back then.
What are some of the products Hilina produces?
Today, we have three products namely Plumpy nut which is for the rehabilitation of children with Severe Acute Malnutrition, Plumpy Sup and Dimbuch which are for the rehabilitation of children with Moderate Acute Malnutrition. Plumpy Nut and Plumpy Sup are peanut based products formulated by Nutriset in France. Dimbuch is a chickpea-based product formulated by Hilina Foods with the support of World Food Program (WFP).
Our founders decided to make the company a joint Venture with the French company to build the capacity of the company and bring along knowledge and technology transfer. The inflow of the new capital together with the transfer of knowledge helped Hilina Foods become one of the leading producers of these products in the region. The company has now a 30 MT per day capacity.
Where are most of your products found or sold?
Hilina Foods supplies its products mainly to UN agencies and other partners working on Nutrition. Producing Ready to Use Foods locally has created access to the products on a timely basis. When emergencies arise, airlifting is no more necessary. The cost of airlifting was so huge! In addition, local production means employment creation. Not only that but local production has a spin off effects when it comes to the sourcing of raw materials. Nearly 50 percent of our raw materials are sourced locally whereas it goes up to 75% of local ingredients when it comes to the product, Dimbuch. We process a lot of peanuts coming from different regions of Ethiopia. We have trained the farmers on post-harvest technology & good storage practices. Previously, a contaminant called aflatoxin was a challenge to source peanuts locally. However, after a lot of training given to the farmers and process improvements, we have managed to get quality supply. This is a great success we are very proud of. Today, farmers understand the value of quality supply. We pay a little higher than the average market rate for the sake of their quality. Hilina Foods is also one of the highest foreign currency earners in the Agro Processing sector.
How big is the company?
We have 220 permanent employees. We are very proud to have an Ethiopians only operated company producing a value-added product that meets a very stringent quality specification. Hilina Foods became an ISO 22000 certified company in 2007 and ever since it has been yearly audited & has complied. We also get a yearly audit by our customers in addition to pre delivery inspection of our products every week.
We are very conscious on our products quality as we cater for a highly vulnerable group. We also work a lot to increase the caliber of our employees and expose them to the advanced technologies out there. Global competition is tough but it pushes you to be better every time.
What are some of the challenges of producing such products within Ethiopia?
The Ready to Use Foods are not distributed via the commercial channels. The products are specific and targeted to treat a certain type of malnutrition so it goes through a health center and is only given by a recommendation of a physician. Hilina Foods had, however, two commercial products that were introduced to the commercial market.
We had Tafo salt which was a clean, iodized and free flowing table salt. We also had peanut snacks flavored in paprika, pepper and salt. But these two products were stopped due to tough competition.
When you are serious on quality, you have costs. When you comply with the tax obligations, again you have costs. However, if your competitors don’t have these added costs, you will easily get pushed out. The field must be plain. When a new law comes, there must be monitoring too. Is every product iodized to the standard level? Are all paying taxes? Otherwise it’s very discouraging for the producers who are complying. We love both products. The peanut splits especially had a good acceptance. Peanuts are healthy snacks. It also has an export potential so we are now looking into how to come back with a better and affordable product.
I hear corporate social responsibility is embraced by the company and I am aware it was involved in a recent effort in Legetafo. Tell me about that?
Our company is highly involved in the community. Hilina Foods has fully sponsored the tuition, learning materials and meals of 20 students from Legetafo area. It continues to be supporting the local community with clean water, nutrition when in need and many more. The health center of the IDP in Legetafo area has received our life saving products to respond to Severe and Moderate Acute Malnutrition (SAM and MAM). Similarly, we have supported the Heath Center in Gedeo to respond to SAM and MAM as a result of the internal displacement.
Any lasting words?
More importantly, our company believes in becoming a center that works with universities to create a platform for students to see processing companies and support the practical learning. We have thus committed to take 3-4 students every semester and actively support them in their capacity building.
Hilina Foods has new projects for the coming two to three years and the public will see nutritious and locally produced quality products on the shelves soon. We want to work more on prevention. We believe that’s the only way to have a sustainable progress on Nutrition.