The UN has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. CICILS President Hakan Bahceci talks about the efforts behind it and where the industry goes from here.

By Dario Bard

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The news came to Global Pulse Confederation (CICILS) President Hakan Bahceci by way of a telephone call from the Turkish delegation: the United Nations General Assembly was to decide whether 2016 would be declared the International Year of Pulses the following day. Bahceci didn’t waste any time. He rushed to Dubai International Airport and booked himself on the next flight to New York, a 2:30 a.m. red-eye that got him into JFK at 8 a.m. By 10:20 a.m., he was in the General Assembly chamber, and 20 minutes later, following the reading of the motion, it was done. At approximately 10:40 a.m. on Friday, December 20th, the UN General Assembly officially declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYOP).

“When the motion was being read, my heart was racing,” recalls Bahceci. “And when it passed, it was one of the best moments of my life. It took just three minutes. I flew 30 hours for three minutes of work.”

In reality, those three minutes marked the culmination of two years of hard work by Bahceci and his team at GPC (CICILS). Explaining how it all started, he says, “When I assumed the CICILS presidency in 2011, I asked: ‘How can we move forward?’ Promoting production, okay, that’s easy, but we also need to increase consumption.” The questions Bahceci posed led to brainstorming sessions, and from there, the IYOP idea was conceived.

The UN’s official designation of IYOP may mark the project’s climax, but for Bahceci and his team, it is far from the end. “The real work starts now,” he says.

Soon after his return to Dubai, IFT spoke with Bahceci about CICIL’s work on IYOP and what the UN’s declaration means for the international pulse industry.

IFT: Tell us a bit about the genesis of IYOP.

Hakan Bahceci: The international pulse industry has always been on a sort of traditional leash. We have traditional buyers and pulses are cooked in traditional ways. The greatest consumption of pulses is in India and the Middle East. The volumes and the trade is more or less the same, with only the dynamics changing; for instance, it used to be that Turkey and Syria were the most important pulse exporting nations, but now that’s shifted to Canada, Australia and the United States. The fundamentals, however, have always stayed the same.

So how do we break out of that box? Well, when I assumed the CICILS presidency, we decided that increasing consumption was the way forward. To do that, we have to look at what pulses mean to consumers and how we can raise awareness. Many ideas popped up and we used a roadmap to design a strategy, and that’s how we came up with the idea for IYOP.

The year 2016 is perfect for us because it gives us the time we need to do a lot of work. IYOP isn’t simply about informing people of the different ways they can cook pulses. It’s not a picnic. We have to be innovative with our pulse ingredients and encourage the food industry to use them. To that end, together with Pulse Canada, we joined forces with McGill University to create the Pulse Innovation Partnership (PIP), which also includes CGIAR, the United States and large companies like Ferminich, Nestle and Buhler, as well as DSM and communication giant Leo Burnett.

PIP is an alliance of public and private organizations that also includes members of civil society and academia, and is committed to increasing the consumption of pulses in the developing and developed world by optimizing the role that pulses play in delivering sustainable and affordable nutrition and health around the world. PIP partners have engaged to develop science, technology and communications to increase pulse consumption through game-changing, innovative, great-tasting foods, thus offering health benefits to consumers. PIP uses the power of multi-sector collaboration to strengthen this effect.

The aim is to improve the nutrition of consumers in low- and middle-income countries by offering products that provide nutritional value at an affordable price.

So, in addition to the traditional methods of consumption, the way forward is to introduce pulses into the food industry. There are tremendous opportunities there and I’m personally very excited about them. My term as CICILS president ends in 2015 and IYOP is in 2016; we have created a very excited work group in CICILS that includes members of many associations from all over the world and some government members that will carry out all of the IYOP activities.

IFT: I understand the involvement of Turkey and Pakistan was key to the passage of the IYOP resolution. Could you tell me a bit more about the role they played?

Hakan Bahceci: Turkey, you could say, is the home of pulses. Its tradition with pulses dates back 12,000 years and it has one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the world. So we approached the Turkish government asking them to lend their support to IYOP, which they did, providing us with very professional personnel to move the process forward at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).  You see, in the UN process, you can’t do anything as a member of the business-civil community; you need the backing of at least one national government, and so I am extremely grateful to Turkey for their support.

At that point, however, Turkey wasn’t an FAO Council member, and an FAO Council member is needed to move the motion to FAO Conference. So Turkey reached out to Pakistan, which was one of 46 countries on the Council, and that’s how we got unanimous support from the FAO Council to move the motion forward.

Pakistan also has a strong culture of pulse production and consumption. If you take a look at the pulse map, you’ll see there are more than 180 countries involved in the pulse trade, either as a consumer or an exporter. Pakistan, India and Turkey are nations with a pulse heritage; in those nations, pulses are an important part of people’s daily lives. So, like Turkey, Pakistan was pleased to push the motion forward.

IFT: Was there ever a moment when it looked like IYOP wasn’t going to happen?

Hakan Bahceci: We were very nervous about it initially. Right before our application, FAO member nations decided to hold International Years every two years instead of every year; 2013 was the International Year of Quinoa and 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming, so we applied for 2016. Thailand, though, submitted an application for the International Year of Soils for 2017. The FAO Secretariat interpreted the two-year decision as meaning an interval of two years, skipping over 2015 and 2016, which meant that the next International Year would be 2017.

At that point, it looked like our project was going to be scrapped. But we worked out a solution with Thailand and asked the FAO Council to make an exception to policy, moving the Thailand proposal to 2015 and accepting our 2016 proposal. At the FAO Council, the European Union wasn’t too pleased based on principle; they didn’t want exemptions to become the order of the day. But in the end they agreed to abstain instead of voting against it. We also had support from the U.S., Canada and Australia.

A big issue, though, was who was going to pay for it. Normally, the money comes from the FAO budget, but the reason the council decided to no longer have International Years every year was to reduce budgetary expenses. So at CICILS, we responded with a private sector pledge of US$ 1.1 million. This marks the first time in the entire UN process that there is a public-private partnership. Thus, IYOP is also an important pilot project for the future; it doesn’t use any FAO funds, instead relying on our pledge and country donations. Our pledge of US$ 1.1 million is enough to start work on IYOP.

IFT: I understand African pulse production is likely to be a focus of IYOP. Could you tell me more about this?

Hakan Bahceci: Pulses represent a growing export and consumption product for Africa. Take Ethiopia; it is a perfect example of how African countries can benefit from IYOP. Over the past five to ten years, Ethiopia has become an important exporter of products like white beans, desi and kabuli chickpeas and colored beans. Many of the producers there are small family farmers. Now, when PepsiCo took over U.S.-hummus producer Sabra, as part of its corporate social responsibility program, it encouraged the Ethiopian government to grow chickpeas. This wouldn’t have been possible without Africa focusing on pulses.

Tanzania is another example; it has become an important pulse producer and exporter. Mozambique and Malawi are both growing in this regard.

In Africa, you have a favorable climate and farmers eager to sell their product, so we will see African nations emerge as new pulse exporters.

Of course, there are challenges. The industry is still very basic there. Seed is an issue. Ethiopia has developed its own varieties, but other countries still need to work on that. NGOs are partnering with African governments to help them develop their own varieties.

Infrastructure has to be developed, as well. Africa is close to the major pulse consuming nations of India and Pakistan, and the Middle East nations. So Africa has geographical advantages that can be turned into opportunities.

IFT: Looking at the success of past International Years, what are your expectations for 2016?

Hakan Bahceci: The previous years were handled mainly at the governmental level. If you look at 2013, the International Year of Quinoa, you’ll see the results have been very good. I hadn’t even heard of quinoa until I started getting involved in the FAO process. Today, in Dubai you will see quinoa on the shelves of stores and supermarkets everywhere.

For IYOP, we’ll also have private sector involvement, so it will be interesting to see what that dimension adds to it. I think IYOP gives the pulse industry a golden opportunity to shape and promote itself. It gives us the opportunity to raise awareness through channels like IFT. That’ll take care of most of the work, and then it will be up to the trade to put the demand and supply in the pipeline.

IFT: How might IFT readers support IYOP?

Hakan Bahceci: The first thing is to engage in the process and get involved, whether at the farm or processing level. We’ve been working closely with governments and through national associations to create awareness and to connect everyone along the chain, from farmers all the way to the end user; everyone has a role to play. And I’m not just talking about making a financial contribution; that is of course very important and any such contribution would be welcome. But my suggestion is to follow what we are doing at CICILS, find an activity to engage in and get involved.

Support International Year of Pulses

More information on IYOP 2016 is available on the CICILS IPTIC website.

To make a monetary donation in support of IYOP 2016, write to info@cicilsiptic.org and specify the amount you wish to donate (i.e. $100, $250, $500 or any other amount).