Rumi Spice is a company that sources saffron directly from farmers in Afghanistan. "What we aim to do at Rumi Spice is to help build up that Afghan brand, to make everyone realize that it's a place worth investing in, that the people are worth investing in," says co-founder Kimberly Jung.
Jennifer 8 Lee: Of all the spices in the world, your company focuses on saffron. Why saffron?
Kimberly Jung: Saffron is a wonderful spice. It's actually the most expensive spice in the world. The reason it is so expensive is that it has to be handpicked flower by flower. There are three red stigmas per flower.
Afghanistan happens to have one of the best climates to grow it. It's also a viable alternative to growing poppy for opium, which is why Rumi Spice chose saffron as its premium spice. We can bring these products directly from Afghan farmers to international consumers.
J8L: Everyone in your company basically has a military background in Afghanistan or has worked in Afghanistan in some other context. How did you notice that saffron was a good spice to grow as an alternative to poppy?
KJ: A lot of farmers grow poppy because it's their only source of income. Afghanistan is a very dry place. Poppy is one of the crops that does not require very much water. Thankfully saffron doesn't require very much water either.
One of our founders, Chris Counts, was a Marine. He recently got out of the military. But he was deployed in the Helmand Province and worked directly with farmers who had to grow poppy. The way that he describes it, poppy was the only thing that economically could support and feed their families.
I also worked with Afghans. I was part of a provincial reconstruction team. What I found was that a lot of the foreign intervention in the traditional ways that we've been helping in Afghanistan helped out a lot, but they only went so far. There was an extra element that needed to be bridged.
I really believe that gap is sustainable economic development. This is something that I've been learning at Harvard Business School. I'm really all about for-profit social enterprise. This is what Rumi Spice is all about.
We take saffron directly from the Afghan farmers and we bring it to international consumers. It's a very high-margin product that brings a lot of income to the farmers and gives farmers up to six times more income than growing poppy. Saffron is a gateway to other awesome products; Afghanistan grows pomegranates, raisins, pistachios and a whole array of fruits and nuts. What we aim to do at Rumi Spice is to help build up that Afghan brand, to make everyone realize that it's a place worth investing in, that the people are worth investing in.
J8L: How expensive is saffron?
KJ: Saffron can be extremely expensive, almost as expensive by weight as gold. In general, the price of saffron can be anywhere between $15 to $40 per gram.
J8L: How much of that gets back to the farmers?
KJ: We try to maximize profits to reinvest back into the farmers. [Ed. note: Rumi Spice reinvests "at least 10 percent of [its] profits into infrastructural developments for farmers," according to its website.] That's actually one of the main things that we have upcoming on our plate is to build a processing center in Afghanistan where we can buy the flowers all in one place and do the processing, so we can keep standards really high.
The farmers get paid immediately in cash. They're actually not allowed to sell saffron above or below the market price under Sharia law. The mechanics of that we're still working out. But we see our farmers more as partners rather than just suppliers.
It's been quite a journey. We started this company while I was still a first-year business student. I didn't know anything. Doing this has been an eye-opener because I've been able to make relationships I would have never made.
I got a chance to go to Afghanistan, this time as a civilian. I brought my entrepreneurship professor with me. We were able to leverage our military contacts and our Afghan contacts to start to create the network of farmers on the ground and people who we knew and operatives so we could start building this company.
When I was over there, I met with farmers. I remember that meeting was pretty interesting. These very traditional Pashto farmers would not shake my hand when we first met because it wasn't within their cultural bounds and norms to do so. But by the end, we had negotiated a contract and I had bought saffron from them. We didn't physically shake hands but emotionally shook hands. We've been in contact with them since. I'm very, very proud to say that they have told us that they're doubling their production of saffron for next year.
We're looking at making Rumi Spice something that can make a change in the world -- an impact on Afghanistan that is not just an idea but an actual company and a business to help lay a foundation for peace.
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