Katia Sambin talks about her work with Acos and her current role handling stakeholder relations for IYoP.

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When Katia Sambin talks to people outside the world of pulses, they are often surprised by how beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas can be so exciting. But when your job involves close collaboration with farming communities in Ethiopia and Argentina, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and NGOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it’s easy to understand why Sambin is so passionate about her work.

“It’s a world that changes every day,” Katia explained during a recent phone interview with IFT. “In the last three years I’ve been learning a lot about beans but never enough. I’m learning everything every day.”

Recently the Assistant CEO of Acos, the business-to-business arm of the Italy-based Pedon Group, was elected to handle stakeholder relations for the upcoming International Year of Pulses (IYoP) as part of CICILS’ new oversight committee, which includes Hakan Bahceci, Cindy Brown, Gordon Bacon and Tim McGreevy. Sambin took the stage at the recent convention, which happened to be her first, during a panel discussion on IYoP.

IFT spoke to Sambin in depth about her exciting work at Acos and about what IYoP means for the industry.

IFT: I’ve heard a lot about the positive atmosphere at this year’s CICILS convention. What was that experience like for you?

Katia Sambin: I found the atmosphere to be very exciting. The participation we had from the audience and from the general assembly was really memorable. People who are usually lukewarm became very passionate. We had more than 60 replies for feedback on [the IYoP] session. I think the industry is sensing that this is a lifetime opportunity for the pulses industry, and they are really organizing themselves in national committees and are passionate about what’s ahead. To me it’s exciting to be part of it and it’s a great opportunity because I get to work with people that have a big profile in the industry, like Cindy Brown for example and Tim McGreevy whom I am sure you know.

IFT: Speaking of Tim, I’ve been told he gave an impromptu performance of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” with pulse-related lyrics, which he used as an example of how CICILS can reach out to young people.

Katia Sambin: I was there and it was a epic moment. He didn’t give us any preparation for it, he just came out with it. It is not often that a treasurer has a talented artistic side!

IFT: Along those lines, what were some of the ideas you heard from industry members that made an impression? What did you learn from the participants?

Katia Sambin: The most exciting thing was the level of passion coming through. Also, people are committing their own funds, which is a good sign because this is the first International Year that is completely funded by industry. This is one of the main points that we tried to bring home to the United Nations and a very important one.

As far as CICILS is concerned, I see it also from the young people in the industry—CICILS has a youth side as well. They were very positive, suggesting interaction with school communities to promote, for example, provisions for schools and health benefits of vegetable protein. They were coming up with all sorts of interesting ideas that would then be organized within the national committees. The UK is, for example, a very well-organized national committee. They’ve had interactions with chefs and  pulses health ambassadors. All very exciting.

IFT: Tell me about what you’ll be doing on the oversight committee.

Katie Sambin: I have the opportunity to represent the International Agri-Food Network, of which CICILS is a member, on the Advisory Board of the UN Committee on Food Security.  It brings me to Rome a lot, and I have found the United Nations to be an extraordinary environment.  It can be confusing, it can be confounding, and it does move slowly, but it is also an environment where we can literally make a world of difference.

Every day the United Nations tracks the number of the world’s hungry. They deliver programs to foster rural development. They are tackling gender inequality. They are feeding people. Specifically, the World Food Programme feeds 90 million. And they bring people together. One hundred and ninety three countries voted in favor of having an International Year. Now we have this opportunity to reach out—all over the world—to get pulses the attention they deserve.

During the course of the past two years, Hakan, Robynne Anderson and I—in addition to CICILS members around the world—have reached out to 80 member states to garner support for the year. That is a tremendous number of contacts and amount of awareness. Now is the moment for us to choose the things CICILS can bring to the International Year and to build the partnerships to make those ideas a reality.

Personally, I am in charge of stakeholder relations. Therefore I am working particularly on partnerships beyond the circle of those involved in the pulse value chain. There are many organizations that are needed as part of the International Year activities. Just this weekend, we have agreed on a plan to reach out to a wide array of other groups, including:

  • UN agencies (such as FAO, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organizations)
  • Scientific bodies, including ICARDA, ICRISAT and the International Food Policy Research Institute
  • NGOs, including the heart, diabetes and cancer institutes, and groups like the World Wildlife Fund that could increase the power of our message on sustainability.
  • Value Chain groups, like the Grain and Feed Trade Association, the Seed Federation and the International Food and Beverage Association·
  • Monetary Funds, like the World Bank and regional development banks

This is just an overview of more than 50 organizations that have been identified and prioritized. We must make every effort to include whoever may be willing. It is important that our outreach efforts are coordinated and that we maximize the collective relationships of CICILS members. We will need the support of many others to get the job done and to amplify the impact of the money we have invested.

IFT: Gordon Bacon spoke a little about shifting the emphasis from merely feeding the world’s hungry to really providing them with nutritious foods, with pulses being a key focal point. How will IYoP convey this message?

Katia Sambin: A lot of it is based on communication. The oversight committee will organize overarching events that the single national committees will be responsible for organizing in their own countries. As we see it, communication to the end consumer is very important. On the side of stakeholder relations we will engage vegan societies, for example, vegetarian societies and the Heart Foundation to spread the message of the International Year. We believe events or partnerships with, for example, programs like Master Chef, which could have a pulse special day, could massively reach out to millions of people more than a logo on a can.

At the end of the day it’s information. If people knew how much protein is contained within pulses it would engage their consciousness of how sustainable they are for the environment and how good they are for you at the end of the day. Pulses have the elements to be able to sustain life in the short term because when combined with a cereal they provide a fully balanced meal. They are light to transport. They last long because they are dry and don’t need lots of special warehousing. They increase the productivity and water use efficiency of farming systems, and reduce fertilizer needs and GHG emissions. Using them in a rotation leads to reduced fertilizer costs/needs and decreased greenhouse gas emissions. So pulses are good not just for our bodies. They really provide an answer to growing concerns regarding food security, sustainability and long term health.

IFT: Shifting now to your work with Acos, many have praised the group’s innovative work with navy pea bean production in Ethiopia. What are some of the challenges in terms of marketing products from a country that may not be as widely accepted in the pulses industry as, say, Canada or the U.S.?

Katia Sambin: I think the European market, for example, is a market where the consumer plays a very important role. European consumers are more sensitive to sourcing from African countries than, perhaps, people in the U.S.—and this is my opinion—who might perceive a product from Ethiopia as being from a country that needs support rather than to be exporting food. There is this erroneous perception out there that buying food from Ethiopia means “stealing” food from the starving. This is the mindset that needs to change in my opinion because buying a product from Ethiopia helps its economy grow and provides its people with the tools to become true protagonists of their own future.

Acos’ mission is to provide a standard where there is none, and this is very much the case in Ethiopia. I believe it has been a challenge at times, but Ethiopia is the most beautiful country with an enormous potential for agriculture. In my opinion, Africa itself is set to become the food basket for the world in years to come.

Acos simply opens new market opportunities and sets the standard to follow. Our model includes: fostering collaboration along the entire value chain; working with farmer organizations and traders to improve links with smallholders; providing transparent and measurable quality checks for beans and providing a consistent price based on quality and volume; finding ways to ensure farmers have equitable access to services and inputs; and ensuring that innovation is inclusive.

IFT: Do you think IYoP could help change some of the erroneous perceptions you mentioned?

Katia Sambin: I would like that very much. Personally, I believe it would be one of the most important elements to change, not just for Ethiopia but for all of Africa. We’re going to work on market access as well because there are some trade barriers. For example, Costa Rica still has a ban on imports from Ethiopia and we do wonder why this happens. It seems to be a 50-year-old ban based on when Ethiopia once had some phytosanitary issue. But nobody has looked at it since. So we’re working with FAO to try and address this and change it because at the end of the day, people will still find a way around it. But if all the neighboring countries are importing and the international market accepts products from Ethiopia, I don’t see why one country should not be part of the dialogue.

For sure, Ethiopians have a lot to learn, too. They tend to be quite a closed country, not only because they are landlocked. They also live in a different year. For them it’s not 2014 but 2006, and this can pose quite a challenge at times as they fail to have a global perspective of the market, for example.But it’s worth noting that Ethiopia, which is one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, has achieved the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for child mortality and is on track for achieving them in gender parity in education, HIV/AIDS and malaria

IFT: What makes Ethiopia special in the international pulses industry and the food industry in general?

Katia Sambin: Ethiopia has an 8.7% growth rate, so it is a powerful reality within Africa at the moment. It is the second-most populous country in Sub-Saharan Africa with a population of about 92 million. Obviously, the Ethiopian Government has challenges that need to be tackled on a daily basis, but that offers opportunities for engagement and learning opportunities for all of us. I’m very passionate about Ethiopia because it’s a country that can play a key role. Ethiopia is a very large player within the food industry in Africa because it’s also the largest exporter of meat in Africa. With better infrastructure it could become a key player in meeting the planet’s growing demand for food. Ethiopia remains one of the world’s last frontiers for agriculture: it uses 36% of its land for agriculture and less than 20% of its water resources at the moment.