This article is part of an Executive special report on Lebanese industry. Read more stories as they’re published here, or pick up October’s issue at newsstands in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s leading nuts producer Al Rifai last July moved into a brand new $25 million facility near Byblos. “We used to have three separate production facilities in and around Beirut,” says Al Rifai’s commercial director Jean Nader. “Now, we are all under one roof in Halat.”
The facility has a capacity of some 16,000 tons of nuts and kernels annually. Al Rifai ships in nuts from all over the world. Almonds, for example, are mainly imported from Spain and the United States. Pistachios mainly come from Iran, cashew nuts from Brazil and peanuts from China.
“Lebanon only produces high-quality pine seeds,” says Nader. “It also produces almonds and walnuts, but not premium quality and not enough to support an industrial operation like ours. Lebanese almonds and walnuts are for local, seasonal, consumption only.”
The industrial process consists of cleaning, screening, soaking, roasting and packing nuts and kernels. “The Halat facility is equipped with one of the latest, most sophisticated fiber-optic screening machines in the world,” says Nader. “We judge nuts on such features as toxins, size and shape in order to produce a high-grade uniform product.”
Founded in 1948, the family firm has a presence in 23 countries across the region and exports to 48 countries worldwide. According to Nader, Al Rifai represents approximately 40 percent of Lebanon’s roasted nuts market, which has an estimated value of $160 million annually. This does not include export, which amounts to about 30 percent of the firm’s annual turnover.
Al Rifai is no longer a strictly Lebanese firm. In January 2012, Qatar First Investment Bank bought a 15 percent stake in the company. In addition, Al Rifai has two factories in Kuwait and Dubai, which are jointly owned with a local firm and supply most of the MENA region. Finally, Al Rifai owns a 10,000 square meter facility in Sweden to supply the European market.
“We have hardly been hit by the Syrian crisis,” says Nader. “The Syrian market is not a major market for us, which until recently was provided for by our Gulf branch. It was only added to our Lebanese branch in 2011, just before the crisis erupted. Syria as a transit country only affected our exports to Jordan, a small market, which we now do by plane.”