Global head of the pulses and local grains business segment at Bühler
Can Pulses Save the Planet?: An Interview with Alexandra Londoño
The global head of Bühler’s pulses and local grains business segment talks about the innovation taking place around pulses and why it is vital to everyone’s future.
This past April 22nd, the world commemorated Earth Day for the fiftieth time. Taking stock of where we stand after half a century, the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organization reported that, since the first Earth Day in 1970, the planet’s average temperature has increased by nearly 1° Celsius, CO2 levels have risen by 26%, and the last five years have been the hottest on record. In fact, key indicators show that the pace of climate change has actually accelerated over the past five years.
In response to these sobering metrics, Bühler reassessed its sustainability efforts. Years earlier, the company had unveiled its 30/30/30 goals, a commitment to reduce waste, energy use and water use by 30% across all its business activities. Clearly, though, more needed to be done.
This past June, at Bühler GO!2020, a virtual networking event that brought its customers and partners together “to transform global challenges into sustainable busines,” the company announced its new 50/50/50 goals, in effect stepping up its reduction targets from 30 to 50%.
As the global head of the pulses and local grains business segment, Alexandra Londoño takes her company’s sustainability goals to heart and sees them as a powerful motivator for more players to enter into the special grains and pulses business.
“I don’t just sell equipment,” she says. “I really hope to engage with the customer, to foster the consumption of these crops. Pulses are sustainable crops that reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and have a favorable ecological footprint. And so, I help customers explore the business opportunities pulses represent, and in this way I hope to increase pulse production, processing and consumption, and contribute to a more sustainable world.”
Fresh off her participation in the GPC’s Ask the Experts Adding Value to Pulses webinar, Alexandra spoke to us by telephone from her home in Switzerland about how she came to be in her current position at Bühler, what trends she sees as the drivers of demand for pulse ingredients, and what the future holds for the global pulse industry.
GPC: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the global head of the pulses and local grains business segment at Bühler.
Alexandra: I’m originally from Colombia, but my mother was German and I attended a German school in Bogota. So I was raised with two cultures. I earned a degree in industrial engineering in Bogota and worked in Colombia for the first four years of my career. I started in the fast-moving consumer goods sector working for Brinsa S.A., a renowned retailer that has several food and household cleaning brands. My job at the time was to conduct market research and develop business plans to integrate new businesses.
It was at that time that I developed a passion for business strategy and developing new business. And it was also during my time with Brinsa that I came in contact with Bühler. They were the technology providers in several of the business plans and idea developments I had been working on. But at that point in time I was very passionate about the food industry and fast-moving consumer goods, and I wasn’t contemplating gaining experience in a technology company or in the B2B sector.
Eventually, I did my MBA in Germany and after graduation, by coincidence, Bühler was looking for a strategic assistant to the CEO. It was a fascinating opportunity because I was working with the CEO in support of highly strategic topics and learning from the executive board on a daily basis. The idea of the strategic assistant position at that time was to move after two years to one of the business areas where you could further develop your potential and grow in your career. So, from there I became the product manager of the pulses and special grains business unit. Afterwards I took the role of the strategic business development manager for the Milling Solutions area. That was at the time when pulses started to become a very hot topic. My contribution to integrating the pulses business into the business area was the main prompter that led to my becoming the head of the segment.
GPC: And that was your first experience with pulses?
Alexandra: In terms of work, yes. But being from Colombia, my experience with pulses dates back to my childhood. In the region where my father comes from, we have a traditional dish, bandeja paisa, that is served with beans and is very nourishing. I remember seeing my mother prepare it. It has more than 15 ingredients and requires so much preparation, from soaking the beans to cooking them for three hours, that I thought to myself back then: This is delicious, I love it, but I will never be able to make it!
But, yes, it was at Bühler that I really became familiar with pulses. The pulses segment is a relatively new one. My area handles business under the total solution approach, which now also includes the field of protein.
At Bühler, the focus in pulses has historically been on the upstream, the cleaning and processing, etc. But now we are highlighting the message that we are a tech provider along the complete value chain. That includes not just the upstream and the milling to produce ingredients, but also the further processing of pulses for snacks, pasta and plant-based meats and even plant-based beverages.
I would say the segment is about catering to future consumer trends. And of course, to fulfilling our mission as a company, which is to help feed 10 billion people by 2050 in a sustainable, healthy way. Pulses are really one of the keys to getting us there.
GPC: Could you give us an overview of Bühler’s history with pulses?
Alexandra: It started with Bühler India. Pulses are a staple food in India and the country accounts for 30% of world pulse consumption. Bühler consolidated its position as a market leader in India and then started to gain traction in the rest of the world.
Originally, the pulses business segment was part of the big digital technology business area, located in the Sortex business unit. But in 2018, when we started to notice the trend with pulse protein, flours and concentrates, it was moved to the milling solutions area with the aim of turning pulses into value added ingredients that can be further processed into value added products with our extrusion technologies. Today the market need is not just cleaning and dehulling, but also adding value to pulses, and therefore the segment is now under a focused, total solutions area.
GPC: And as the head of this fairly new segment, what would you say is the best part of your job?
Alexandra: What I love most about it is that every day is different. On any given day, a customer can come to me from any corner of the world with a special inquiry about innovating with pulses. It is fascinating to be part of something so dynamic, to talk with customers on a daily basis and get their take on the local market.
I am enthusiastic about working with pulses and love to inspire customers by showing them the trends, explaining that we understand and know the needs of the end consumer and that our technology is catered to cover this need. And then exploring with them all the possibilities that are available to them with our technology.
What makes working with pulses especially exciting is that much has yet to be written. Unlike with other food products, there is still a lot of playground left to innovate with something new. Possibilities are there waiting to be discovered. And that makes this job especially motivating. Shaping the industry from the technology side is very exciting.
Also, there is the draw of a higher aspiration. Bühler believes in innovating for a better world and is focused on feeding the planet in a sustainable way by 2050. And for me, working with the pulses segment gives me the opportunity to contribute to this noble goal. Pulses are the key to sustainable, alternative protein. They have some of the biggest potential. It is satisfying to foster the implementation of pulse technology and in this way contribute to sustainability for future generations.
GPC: You mentioned trends earlier. What are some of the more exciting trends you are seeing around pulses?
Alexandra: The biggest one is the move towards healthy eating that is occurring globally. Twenty years ago, the top food trend was about losing weight. Now it’s about functionality. Consumers are asking what aspect of the food they eat gives them a benefit in terms of cardiovascular health, digestion or just overall wellness. The new consumer is all about the health benefits of what they eat. They are conscious of ingredients and look for transparency, and have a need to understand what is in their food.
A second major trend is sustainability. Everyone is aware of the challenges we face. We haven’t been respecting the ecological limits of our planet. The impact of this on the food industry is that consumers, especially younger consumers, are willing to pay more for food products that provide transparency as to their origin, that are fair trade, sustainable and organic. The consumer wants to better understand the process along the value chain and the technology that is being used, to know the ecological footprint of their food. This trend is known as ethical living.
A third top trend is one that has been around for almost a decade: snackification. Lifestyles are getting busier and people don’t have time to cook, and so the snacks segment is booming. That said, what we are seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic is that younger consumers are learning how to cook at home. It is possible, then, that ready-to-cook kits that include all the elements needed to prepare an elaborate dish can gain traction given the current situation. Consequently, during this global crisis, some snack categories have slowed down. But my feeling is that once things normalize, we will see that snacks are here to stay.
Lastly, there is the globalization trend that is impacting the entire world. Today, people are more open to trying new things, new flavors and new ingredients. This is because of immigration flows and it has created potential for our work with local grains. For instance, today quinoa is known all over the world, even though in the past it was limited to the Andean region. This emergence and expansion of local foods beyond their traditional borders is something that has come out of globalization.
GPC: Given these trends, which of the various pulse ingredients offers the greatest potential for growth?
Alexandra: There are two elements to consider here. On the one side, you have market studies that talk about the total category of pulse flours. This encompasses the common pulse flours as well as pulse protein concentrates and isolates. We estimate the volume in this category at 17 million MT and expect it to double over the next five years. You are looking, therefore, at an annual growth rate of more than 10%. You can see, then, that overall there is a lot of dynamism for the entire field of pulses as ingredients.
Now, in terms of the three subcategories, it is pulse protein concentrates that are getting the greatest pull from customers. Customers are discovering that if they can get a good concentrate, they can use it instead of an isolate, which is more expensive to produce. From my perspective, therefore, the most dynamic area is the area of pulse protein concentrates. But I should qualify this by emphasizing that this is based on my experience with the developed world, especially North America and Europe. In the developing world, we are seeing the use of pulse flour combined with another milled product, such as corn or wheat, to make snacks and confectionary products.
GPC: In June, Bühler opened its Food Application Center in Minnesota. Can you tell us about the work being done there?
Alexandra: Of course. Bühler’s North American headquarters are in Minneapolis and in 2010 it opened up its Food Innovation Center to showcase its extrusion technologies. This extrusion facility has all the capacity and food grade capability to perform pilot testing. Customers who used it said it was very cool and suggested it would be great if there was also a facility to test the upstream part of the process, where ingredients can be prepared at pilot scale to enter the extrusion line.
I had the pleasure of actually participating in the development of the business case for the Food Application Center. We recognized that the special need of the customers was to experiment with these local grains and pulses.
It was the market pull and the customer need for a facility to test the upstream that led Bühler to invest in this new facility. Its aim is to concentrate expertise around local grains and specialty crops and milling, especially highlighting the alternative protein sector. It also gives us the ability to showcase the total solution approach that we have at Bühler of adding value along the complete value chain.
The idea is to build it into a hub for knowledge about pulses and the future of protein. We have an extensive collaborative network with academia in the U.S. and also with the Global Pulse Confederation, and we want the center to be a place where the industry can come together and make use of this hands-on opportunity to innovate with these products.
GPC: Can you give us a sneak peek at some of the exciting new technologies or equipment that is under development at Bühler?
Alexandra: Well, relevant to pulses I can reveal something we announced at Bühler GO!2020. There is this issue that is hindering the application of pulse isolates in alt meat and in plant-based protein, and that is the perception of an off-taste or off-flavor in pulses. For instance, consumers associate drinks made from almonds with a sweet taste, but peas are associated with a bitter taste. At Bühler, we are about to launch a new technology to improve the taste of pulse isolates. It basically removes the off taste, leaving a neutral flavor, which should lead to greater application of pulse ingredients in new food and beverage products.
GPC: Where do you see the pulse business segment in 10 years?
Alexandra: My dream would be to walk into any supermarket in the world and see that plant-based products have gone mainstream and become a regular part of people’s lives. I imagine my daughter, who is a toddler now, growing up and having these foods integrated into her life, drinking a pea-based beverage and eating a plant-based burger as the norm, not as some novel innovation. That is my dream. To see these products mainstreamed like wheat in bread is today. And I am really excited and motivated to sustain my contribution to making this vision come true.