Free trade and economic integration at risk, says leading entrepreneur

Canadian businessman Murad Al-Katib says protectionism is at an all-time high

Some 40 years of progress in free trade and economic integration is unravelling, the current EY World Entrepreneur of the Year Murad Al-Katib has warned.

Speaking to The Irish Times, the Canadian businessman, whose AGT Foods supplies around a quarter of the world's lentils, said protectionism is at an all-time high globally.

Mr Al-Katib comments come following a period of unprecedented geopolitical changes, including Brexit and the threat of a trade war following the imposition of tariffs on the EU, China and Canada by US president Donald Trump.

“Protectionism is at an all-time high. Given this, it has been a challenge for my business this year and I would imagine for many other companies too,” he said.


What is happening is that voter discontent is being channelled into populist governments. I don’t think voters are meaning to trigger domestic protectionism, which is ultimately going to trigger higher consumer prices but this is the outcome,” Mr Al-Katib added.

The businessman said he was “pinning his hope con consumers ultimately rejecting inflation.”

Mr Al-Katib, a son of Turkish immigrants who moved to Canada in the late 1960s, has grown AGT from a small business in his basement into a company that generates about 2.1 billion Canadian dollars (€1.37 billion) a year, with operations on five continents.

The company he founded in 2001 has become one of the largest suppliers of pulses – such as lentils, peas, beans and chickpeas – in the world. It also produces a number of other staple foods.

AGT, which went public in 2007 and employs about 2,000 people globally, ships its products to over 120 countries. The company has grown revenue sustainably by an average of more than $100 million each year for the past five years.

In addition to being named World Entrepreneur of the Year last June, Mr Al-Katib also received the prestigious Oslo Business for Peace award in 2017 for contributing an estimated 700 million meals for refugee families during the Syrian crisis.

Mr Al-Katib said his company was fighting back against protectionism by stepping up its investments in a number of countries, including the US and in Europe. He added that increased spend on technology was also on the cards.

“The agriculture sector is the least digitised one of all but there is the possibility that when it happens it will scale up quickly,” he said.

“In the next 40 years we’re going to have to produce as much food as we produced in the last 10,000 years so digitalisation of agriculture is going to be essential i helping us meet this” Mr Al-Katib added.

The businessman said that being the son of immigrants had been a key factor in leading him to become an entrepreneur.

“There is no doubt that my first generation upbringing taught me pride in my country but also that there was a world outside of Canada that I had to link,” he said.

“i believe that a cross-cultural upbringing is the perfect match for today’s global economy. Diversity in culture and business and the engagement of the Diaspora in every country will always benefit the economies of those countries,” Mr Al-Katib added.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist