Transport bottlenecks still hamper Kazakh grain exports
* Kazakhstan needs new terminal to boost grain exports by sea
* Existing terminal struggles to meet rising demand from Iran (Writes through with fresh quotes, adds details, background)
By Raushan Nurshayeva
AKTAU, Kazakhstan, March 15 (Reuters) - Kazakhstan, a top-10 world wheat exporter, still hopes to export around 15 million tonnes of grain in the current marketing year and plans to build a new terminal on the Caspian to boost exports by sea, officials said on Thursday.
A giant steppe nation five times the size of France and with a population of just 16.7 million, Kazakhstan more than doubled its grain harvest to 27 million tonnes last year, its biggest since independence in 1991.
"In general, Kazakhstan has achieved a monthly export rate of 1.2 million tonnes of grain," Yevgeny Aman, executive secretary at the Agriculture Ministry, told journalists during a visit to the Aktau port on the Caspian Sea.
"We hope to be able to export a total of around 15 million tonnes of grain in the current marketing year," he said. "Kazakhstan has already exported around 7.5 million tonnes (of grain) since July 1. Flour makes up 34 percent of this volume."
Exports beyond Kazakhstan's core markets of Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan are hampered by a shortage of rail wagons. High rail freight costs for exports from the vast land-locked nation make its grain more expensive compared to its main Black Sea rivals Russia and ukraine.
The country, which is also Central Asia's largest economy and oil producer, exported 5.9 million tonnes of wheat and flour in the last complete marketing year to June 30, 2011.
"The system of state support that we enjoy ... allows us to ensure a high monthly rate of (grain) loading and allows us to use to a maximum the infrastructure we have today," Aman said.
Windswept Aktau, laid out on a shell-rock plateau some 2,600 km (1,600 miles) southwest from the capital Astana, is Kazakhstan's gateway to the Caspian.
"With confidence into the future! The sea port of Aktau," a giant poster featuring strongman veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev greets everyone at the entrance to the grain terminal.
The existing 71-person terminal, built in 2001 and 100-percent owned by Kazakh state-owned grain trader Food Contract Corporation, loaded 307,000 tonnes of grain for exports, the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
BOOMING EXPORTS TO IRAN
"In 2011 alone, the terminal handled the grain of 20 companies to eight countries, which are Iran, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Cyprus, Italy, Georgia and Azerbaijan," it said.
Iran was the largest importer of Kazakh grain in the 2009-10 marketing year. Shipments reached almost 1 million tonnes in the 2009 calendar year, Kazakh Agriculture Ministry data have shown.
"The main destination for Kazakh grain through the port of Aktau is Iran," the ministry said on Thursday. "The Aktau terminal allows Kazakh exporters to sell their grain directly, bypassing transitpoints, which is far more advantageous."
"Since September, practically 100 percent of all grain loadings have been bound for Iran," a terminal official told Reuters. "A bit more than 200,000 tonnes of grain were shipped to Iran last year," he added.
A grain carrier bound for Iran was being filled with Kazakh grain at the terminal on Thursday.
Kazakhstan plans to build a new grain terminal on the Caspian in 2014-15. "The new terminal would be ready to handle annually up to 1.5-2.0 million tonnes of grain," said Rafail Galyamov, head of the present-day Ak Bidai Terminal.
Meanwhile, Ak Biday Terminal is forecast to more than double its grain loadings to up to 700,000 tonnes this year, the Agriculture Ministry said.
"We expect that grain exports to Iran via Aktau can hit 600,000 tonnes this year," said the unnamed terminal official. He did not elaborate.
Galyamov said that in the last three months his terminal had been working at its full capacity to meet high demand from Iran.
He said that in February, Aktau handled 60,000 tonnes of grain, well above its capacity of 50,000 tonnes.
(Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Keiron Henderson)