“Yesterday is gone and its tale told. Today new seeds are growing.” ~~ Rumi
Crimson, spicy-sweet, and essential to a perfect paella or seafood risotto, saffron is known the world over as the Queen of All Spices or Red Gold.
Saffron is variously grown in Iran, Spain, and Kashmir yet it’s in Afghanistan where you’ll find the highest quality saffron. The high altitude, dry winds and intensely arid climate create an ideal environment to grow the purple crocuses from which saffron comes.
What comes to mind when most of us think of Afghanistan, however, isn’t saffron or delectable dishes, but pictures of war-torn lands, stories of terrorist activity, and the reality of the opium drug trade.
Kim Jung and Keith Alaniz, two of the three founders of Rumi Spice, a local Chicago start-up, joined us recently to share quite a different story of Afghanistan.
Deployed to address war, terrorism and drug trafficking as US Army soldiers, what Kim–as a platoon leader in search of roadside bombs, and Keith–as a regional expert working with tribal elders, observed stood in stark contrast to the devastation all around them.
They saw a proud people with a rich culture and history. They saw a generosity of spirit amongst the Afghani farmers. They saw a land covered in tiny purple flowers that contain the rarest, most expensive of spices: Afghan saffron.
Later, back in the US, Kim and third founding member, Emily Miller, had been accepted into Harvard Business School and were in search of a project. While still in Afghanistan, Keith contacted them with an idea.
He’d met Haji Yosef, a local Afghani saffron farmer who could only sell his saffron in the local market. After 30 years of war the Afghanis had effectively been cut off from the international marketplace, and without investment in agriculture, Afghan farmers had few prospects for growth, making them susceptible to the influence of the Taliban’s pressure to grow poppies.
Could this be the project that Kim and Emily were looking for at Harvard?
Kim set out to find out, despite her parents thinking she was a bit crazy. She bought a ticket to Afghanistan where she met up with Keith and Haji Yosef. Deeply moved and inspired by Haji’s story, they set to “become entrepreneurs like Haji Yosef, to start a business, and to do something with this one wild and precious life that actually meant something.”
Rumi Spice was born.
Named after the Persian poet, Rumi, whose life and teachings involve coming home to a spiritual center, Rumi Spice’s purpose is ‘to lay a foundation for peace, one saffron flower at a time.”
To that end, Rumi’s stated purpose is at the core of everything they do: “economically empowering Afghani farmers, inspiring Afghani women through earning direct wages, building out Afghanistan’s agricultural infrastructure, and reinvesting back into the community.”
Rumi is the largest foreign employer in agriculture in Afghanistan. They currently partner with more than 90 farmers, employing morethan 300 women in Herat, the saffron capital in Afghanistan, to hand-harvest the delicate crimson stigmas of the flowers. This delicate, labor intensive work can only occur in the early morning hours of a two-week period each fall, the primary reason that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world at $109/oz. In fact, it requires almost 175,000 flowers to create a single kilogram of saffron.
While the average Afghani household earns around $500/year, Afghan farmers can more than triple their income with saffron while providing an alternative to poppy and opium farming – one of the primary sources of income for the Taliban.
Uniquely positioned to overcome barriers with their social networks and in-country expertise, Kim, Keith and Emily have built important relationships, partnerships, and organizational infrastructure necessary to operate within and out of Afghanistan to bring this top-quality, sustainably farmed saffron to customers around the world.
In addition to its unique flavor, saffron’s amazing health benefits range from improved respiration and heart health to reduced inflammation and pain. Its healing properties have been known throughout time as it is an excellent source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium.
Chosen by world-class chefs and Michelin-rated restaurants, Rumi’s additional products and luxury items include saffron gemmies, saffron cocktails, green tea and saffron mixes.
Kim, Keith and Emily see their competitive advantage as their ability to navigate the Afghan business landscape, which is built on trusted relationships and strengthened by their insistence on quality. Rumi’s Afghani saffron received the highest rating at the International Taste & Quality Institute in accordance with ISO Standard 3632 at an outstanding rating of 236. The Institute has rated Afghan saffron #1 three years running.
“The social impact piece is great, but this saffron stands on its own.” At Rumi they believe that a for-profit, social enterprise is the solution to long-term post-conflict development, and Afghan peace is worth fighting for.
When asked about what they’ve learned in building their business, they shared the following:
- Do it as a business, not as a hobby—make the commitment to a larger purpose.
- It’s all about the relationships.
- Develop standards for quality or there would be no business.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable working in a new culture.
Purpose. Leadership. Culture.
This conscious company is making its mark in the world in big ways. On May 7,2017 all three founders appeared on Shark Tank in hopes of securing investment monies for their growing business. After presenting their business case, graciously addressing the pushback they received, shark Mark Cuban agreed to finance them to the tune of $250,000 in exchange for 15% of their business.