Upgrading From the Shell to the Fruit

Anis Zelleg founded the Sotuged company based in Gabes, a large city on the Tunisian Mediterranean coast. He recently reorganised his company to produce apricot kernels for a German customer.

GIZ: Mr Zelleg, what does your business involve?
Anis Zelleg: I can tell you what we used to do before I completed the MP: turn ground olive pits and almond shells into biomass.

And what has changed since the MP?
I’ll have to start from the very beginning. When I founded my company three years ago, I began selling biomass derived from almond and olive oil production waste. In Germany I hoped to find a partner to start turning this biomass into pellets. In addition to olives and almonds, Tunisia also intensively cultivates apricots, which are dried or processed into jam. I wanted to incorporate the “waste” from these processes into my pellets as well. Then I made a surprising discovery. Stone fruits are unique because they have an almond-like kernel inside the stone. You have probably seen it yourself when a stone breaks open. This kernel is very valuable to the food processing industry, since, similar to an almond, it can be processed into a paste called persipan. This is nothing new, and there are some firms in Asia that supply the global market. It was new to me though. There is not one company in Tunisia that specialises in this process. I met some marzipan producers in Germany, and one Berlin company was very interested in apricot kernels, which they had been buying in Asia up to that point. I can offer them more quickly and for less though. Selling a valuable foodstuff is much more attractive for me than pellets. I have taken one step up from recycling to upcycling, upgraded from the shell to the fruit.

Are apricot kernels now all you sell?
So far I haven’t sold any at all. Moll Marzipan GmbH found the idea so attractive that they immediately ordered 20 tons per month. But I could not supply that much. I went to the bank and applied for a loan to expand my production. I was approved because I could demonstrate that I was working with a strong, dependable German partner. Right now we are poised at the starting line and watching the apricots ripen. The harvest begins in June and lasts until September. So German wedding cakes could soon be decorated with persipan made from our kernels. Right now we are bringing in around 70,000 euros per month from just our German customers, and biomass only accounts for one fourth of our operations at this point. I would like to get more German buyers on board.

That is a truly impressive success story! Is there any advice you’d like to share with other MP alumni?
I think it is important to remember that while the time spent in actual training modules is important, down time is invaluable as well, like when you’re sitting down to enjoy lunch or dinner. I used these breaks to establish contact with the people running the seminars and have informal, very personal conversations. These people have an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience and can give you very individual tips beyond the scope of the standardized seminar programme. This was actually how I acquired my second new business partner, Condio GmbH.

Another buyer of apricot kernels?
No, not at all. Condio makes additives and stabilisers for the food industry. This is actually outside my field, but demand is high in Tunisia. Our meeting went so well that we were named exclusive dealer for the family-owned company based in Werder. We have already signed supply contracts amounting to one million euros for stabilisers for yoghurt, cheese and mayonnaise, for example, with three large Tunisian dairy companies.

Thank you for talking to us, Mr Zelleg, and we wish you continuing success in the future.