Rumi Spice: A U.S. business helping Afghanistan through trade

When most people picture Afghanistan, they don’t imagine fields of purple flowers, but that scene is precisely what U.S. Army veteran Kimberly Jung hopes to create.

Her business, Rumi Spice, which takes its name from the 13th-century Persian poet, works with local farmers to bring Afghan saffron to international markets. As a sustainable business, it provides jobs and helps rural farmers escape the influence of the Taliban.

“We really believe that the way to a sustainable future for Afghanistan is through economic empowerment of the Afghan people,” Jung explains in a promotional video.

The idea of creating Rumi Spice came in 2014 after Jung and two fellow members of the Army, Emily Miller and Keith Alaniz, had returned from serving in Afghanistan. Carol Wang, who had worked in Afghanistan for a World Bank development program, joined as a co-founder.

After talking with Afghan farmers, the four founders realized that Afghanistan grows some of the best saffron in the world and that the purple flowers could be the foundation of a business. But beyond making a new career for themselves, they wanted to create jobs in Afghanistan for local farmers and women to grow and harvest the saffron.

Employing women

Women putting saffron flowers in baskets (© AP Images)
Afghan women work in a saffron field in Guzara district of Herat, Afghanistan. (© AP Images)

Saffron is the world’s most expensive cooking spice, and it comes from the stigma of the crocus flower. Each flower produces only three stigmas, and it can take more than 150,000 flowers to get enough for a single kilogram.

Collecting the flowers and the stigmas is delicate work done by hand. Rumi Spice employs 300 women in Herat, Afghanistan, to harvest and process the flowers. The largest private employer of Afghan women in the country, according to Alaniz, the company also employs Afghan women in managerial and office roles.

Employing women is crucial for the Afghan economy, as studies show that when women work economies grow faster and children benefit.

Saffron: A new opportunity

Afghanistan, where 80 percent of the population works in agriculture, has an almost-perfect climate for growing the delicate purple saffron flowers. The dry, semi-arid land produces some of the highest-quality saffron in the world, according to the International Taste and Quality Institute in Brussels, and farmers can make more growing saffron than any other legal crop.

Harvesting saffron is labor intensive, and many Afghan farmers have no access to the international market. Instead of growing saffron, some farmers grow poppy plants, which provide a key ingredient in heroin, and sell them to the Taliban. Afghanistan produces up to 90 percent of the world’s poppy.

Now, with Rumi Spice’s investment and a growing network of restaurants and supermarkets, saffron farmers are gaining access to foreign markets and greater opportunities to sell their crops.

“Saffron is the best way for Afghan farmers to help avoid the problem of poppy and opium and the influence that the Taliban has on these farmers,” Jung said.

Rumi Spice works with more than 90 farmers in Afghanistan and is growing every year. Empowered Afghan farmers are crucial to the long-term success of the country, says Jung. “I truly believe that they are the key to peace and prosperity for Afghanistan.”