Jordan credits his business success to limestone fortunes

Issued on: Changed:

Karak (Jordan) (AFP) – Long before whiteboards, projectors and laptops entered modern school classrooms, teachers relied on the humble, dusty, sometimes creaky blackboard chalk, a material that created a Jordanian business success story.

Chemical engineer Salah Alokbi remembers sitting on a bus in Amman in 1995 when he got the idea that would lead him to start his company. More than two decades later, it has 150 employees, with exports to over 100 countries.

Chalk, a white, soft limestone, was formed centuries ago when the shells of small sea creatures were compressed on the sea floor – and the desert landlocked country of Jordan in the Middle East is blessed with vast deposits.

“It was a game-changing idea,” recalls Alokbi, now 49, who founded the Jordan Chalk Manufacturing Company.

The company offers in-demand jobs in a country where the unemployment rate jumped to 25 percent last year, about the same as the poverty rate Khalil MAZRAWI AFP

“I was returning from work at the Jordan Carbonate Company when I heard a radio interview saying that the calcium carbonate produced by the company was used in various industries in Jordan – except for the chalk industry.”

Aloqbi wondered how to make blackboard chalk, which until then was entirely imported, to gain additional value from calcium carbonate, which is also used to make white cement, make soils less acidic and toothpaste more abrasive.

Seven years later, he started a small factory in the Karak province south of Amman, with two rooms and just five workers, and began experimenting – initially by crushing the porous material with a meat grinder.

Salah Okbi, founder and owner of Jordan Chalk Manufacturing Company
Salah Okbi, founder and owner of Jordan Chalk Manufacturing Company Khalil MAZRAWI AFP

“But the chalk we were making at the time was no longer being used around the world, so we moved to making medical chalk without dust,” he said, referring to a carbonate type with larger particles.

The right things

Some 2,149 tries later, the businessman said proudly, he hit on the right formula for dust-free chalk, creating a “very strong export opportunity” that now sees his company produce 10 billion pieces a year.

A worker brings chalk products to the company, which started years ago with just two rooms and only five employees
A worker brings chalk products to the company, which started years ago with just two rooms and only five employees Khalil MAZRAWI AFP

Jordan has nearly endless reserves of the raw material, with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources estimating that “the country’s limestone assets exceed 1.3 billion metric tons.”

Limestone is the usual form of calcium carbonate CaCO3, the main ingredient for chalk.

“It comes to mind that this is an outdated product, but the truth is we are struggling to meet the high demand,” Alokbi said as he inspected hundreds of cartons bound for Britain and Germany, Mali and Morocco.

Chalk comes in a wide palette of colors and is used for art and play around the world
Chalk comes in a wide palette of colors and is used for art and play around the world Khalil MAZRAWI AFP

Chalk comes in a wide palette of colors and is used for art and play around the world.

The company has also branched out into colored crayons and modeling clay and is the only manufacturer of chalk sticks in the country.

Today, the company sits on a 7,500-square-meter plot and offers in-demand jobs in a country where the unemployment rate jumped to 25 percent last year, about the same as the poverty rate.

“Most of us are from villages in Karak province,” said one of the workers, 28-year-old Sundus Majali. “More than half of the workers are women.

The chalk was formed centuries ago when the shells of small sea creatures were compressed on the sea floor -- and the landlocked desert country of Jordan is blessed with vast deposits
The chalk was formed centuries ago when the shells of small sea creatures were compressed on the sea floor — and the landlocked desert country of Jordan is blessed with vast deposits Khalil MAZRAWI AFP

At first, she said, “it was difficult for parents to allow women to work… But today they have no problem with it, especially because the factory is safe and not like other workplaces.”

Another colleague, Alaa Alokbi, 33, said “the factory has provided job opportunities at a time when life has become difficult.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.