In our new Feature series “A Conversation With…”, we sit down with a Saskatchewan entrepreneur talk about doing business in the province, its challenges and opportunities, and to get their thoughts on how to succeed in today’s business world.
Industry West Publisher Paul Huber spoke with AGT Foods CEO Murad Al-Katib and discussed the agriculture sector, the opportunities available in Saskatchewan, and Murad’s advice for Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurs.
Agriculture Today & Tomorrow
Opportunities in Saskatchewan’s rapidly changing agriculture industry are vast. Al-Katib sees agriculture as one of Saskatchewan’s—and Canada’s—major competitive advantages. He points out, that for the first time in decades the industry is being viewed as a foundational aspect of the economy, rather that a side note.
However, agriculture needs to become more sustainable, globally and here at home, to meet the demands of the world’s growing population. Saskatchewan and Canada will both need to play a role in developing a new status quo for food production. “The global challenge is to feed 10 billion people. Over the next 40 years we are going to have to produce the equivalent of what the world has produced in the last 10,000 years,” he says.
This next iteration of agriculture development, or what Al-Katib refers to as Ag 2.0, is going to be demanding, but also exciting. Saskatchewan stands to benefit greatly.
Becoming more sustainable is all about adopting technology and research-based science that is leading new innovations for the industry. Concepts like using three crop rotations, zero tillage, or fixing nitrogen levels in the ground by seeding pulses are simple, but effective strategies.
Drone technologies and satellite imaging are helping farmers to gather precise information. Using blockchains and gathering data is taking farming practices to a level of sophistication never seen before. Saskatchewan is already a global leader in agriculture and to remain in this position, we need more research and development in order to maintain this competitive advantage.
Agriculture is still largely viewed in a traditional sense: the farmer toiling in the field. According to Al-Katib, that perception is being changed by people increasingly becoming concerned with their food. He uses his own daughter as an example of a conscious consumer. Her generation wants to know where their food is coming from, how it was grown and what is going into it. As a result, the industry must keep up with these demands on quality.
The true value here is knowing and understanding the customers. Whether they are in Mumbai, Beijing, or Davidson, the sector is consumer-driven; here lies the potential for growing our agriculture sector.
Challenges & Opportunities
The world’s growing population presents a challenge and an opportunity for Saskatchewan producers and processors in the global marketplace.
The rising middle class in China, India, and other developing regions of the world is having a major impact on agriculture. More wealth equals more expensive eating habits. Al-Katib predicts that in 30 years time we, in Saskatchewan, will be serving a very different client base. As meat products require exponentially larger water and nutrient levels to grow, Al-Katib sees vegetable-based proteins, like pulses, emerging as a major supplement to people’s diets. As an example, it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, while lentils require less than half— just 700 gallons.
“Saskatchewan’s position as a global agriculture leader will be anchored in protein innovation,” he says. This is an exciting opportunity for agricultural entrepreneurs. Al-Katib points to Ripple Foods, an American company that makes a dairy-free milk alternative. “I was drinking nutritious, high in protein, non-dairy chocolate milk that was made from peas,” he says. That’s right—chocolate milk made out of peas. The potential of market-driven products that address the emerging need for vegetable-based protein is huge. Products like Ripple Milk represent major value-added opportunities.
This is all part of the evolving perception of agriculture. It’s no longer about growing and selling raw materials. It’s about understanding what the world needs, researching the potentials, and finding innovative ways to add value to our raw commodities.
Al-Katib says that now, dry edible beans are the crop with the most potential. Navy beans, pinto beans, and black beans all promise to do well as commodities traded on the developing North-South market. Soybeans are also touted as an excellent crop, though in Saskatchewan the crop struggles to receive sufficient heat units during the growing season.
However, fava beans are Al-Katib’s preferred crop. They have significantly higher nitrogen-fixing ability compared to other pulses like peas and lentils. Fava beans will also successfully grow in many different regions of Canada.
Turn an Opportunity Into a Business—And Succeed
With his experience in Turkey and his business drive, Al-Katib knew that there was an emerging market for lentils. He also knew that in order to convince farmers of lentils’ potential, he had to speak to them face to face. Al-Katib literally drove from farm to farm, sat down at the kitchen table, and laid out his vision for farmers switching from their traditional crops.
He knew success was taking root as more and more farmers began seeing the value of growing red lentils. He knew that if they would agree to grow this crop that the global supply chain would facilitate the rest, and farmers would begin seeing a stable return on investment.
More importantly though, Al-Katib knew that he had achieved a unique level of success when he found himself able to help others on a large scale. He believes strongly in food security and humanitarian efforts to highlight this issue. He believes in developing sustainable agriculture practices that are environmentally-friendly, and that can be implemented across the country and around the world.
Al-Katib has undertaken an extraordinary initiative to supply staple foods, through the Red Cross and Red Crescent, to refugees fleeing conflict areas. Last year they distributed 4.5 million cartons of food that represented 700 million refugee meals.
The success of AGT and the drive and passion that Al-Katib has shown building this company is a testament to the potential that exists right here in Saskatchewan. The next great Saskatchewan company is just an idea away.
Murad Al-Katib’s Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
- “Have no fear. It’s cliche, but if you know in your heart what you want, then go out and get it.”
- “Do your homework: study, research, calculate risks, explore options and basically know your business inside and out. If you devote yourself to this level of understanding then nothing should surprise you because you will know all the potentials and be prepared.”
- “Build a great team. Know your own strengths and know what others bring to the table.”
- “Embrace diversity. Canada is a strong country because we embrace diversity and this inspires incredible creativity, work ethic and strength.”