About 35 to 40 per cent of the world’s lentil trade passes though Mr. Al-Katib’s hands in one way or another. In total, Canadian pulse [lentils, chick peas, etc.] production exceeds five million tonnes a year – up from 250,000 tonnes in 1985 –and most of it comes from Saskatchewan.
Mr. Al-Katib, with his global business savoir faire, exudes an exotic air, but he is just as Saskatchewanian as curling and Tommy Douglas. A son of a Turkish-Canadian family, he was born and raised in Davidson, Sask., where his father was the town doctor and his mother was the mayor for a time.
Pulses didn’t always make his heart beat faster. With a commerce degree from University of Saskatchewan and an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix, he thought he would end up on Wall Street. But he wrote a fateful letter in the mid-1990s to Roy Romanow urging the then-NDP premier to build a trade promotion presence in emerging markets.
Mr. Romanow invited him to join that effort and, as a 25-year-old, he was selling Saskatchewan crops to places like India, China and Bangladesh. After seven years in government, he conjured up the idea of becoming a value-added trader and processor of pulses. A Turkish family, the Arslans, invested $1.5-million in his newly formed Saskcan Pulse Trading Inc.
Nine years later, Saskcan has evolved into a global business, now called Alliance, that operates 21 factories in Canada, Turkey, Australia and the United States, but earns 60 per cent of its revenues in Canada through its Saskcan operations.
Pulse production is declining in the very countries that consume the most and where population is growing the fastest. As producers, many countries in Africa and Asia have trouble coping with seed diseases, and there is little plant research.
Contrast this to his home province, where University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre has developed shorter-maturing strains suited to the Western Canadian growing season.
He says his future lies in pushing up the value chain, which means more packaging, canning, processing and branding of pulses. He talks of turning green lentils into his own pasta, and buying chickpeas from farmers for his own hummus production.
Regina, hummus capital of the world? Don’t underestimate the vision of Mr. Al-Katib, whose finger is on the pulse of world food trade.
“I’m not an ag guy, I’m a risk manager,” he explains. “This business is all about emerging markets, market development and risk management. We’re dealing in countries that once were not familiar to Saskatchewan exporters.”