Afghanistan may not seem like the ideal location for business opportunities. The country faces frequent blackouts, bombings, equipment shortages, and a consumer market that is untested. Despite these challenges, three Army veterans and a civilian who served in Afghanistan have decided to take on these challenges through their company, Rumi Spice.
Rumi Spice buys saffron, a local crop, from Afghan farmers and then sells it around the globe in order to develop Afghanistan’s economy and agricultural industry. Founders Kimberly Jung, Keith Alaniz, Emily Miller, and Carol Wang started the company about two years ago, and it has since been used in popular restaurants in California and New York. Afghan saffron has even appeared on Dean and DeLuca’s luxury food website, a major victory for Rumi Spice.
Saffron is an expensive spice, ranging in price from $2,500 to $3,000 per kilogram, but many are willing to buy it as it is a staple in Indian, Moroccan, and Persian cuisine. As food trends are brought to the United States, it has also grown and become a more popular spice there. With overall aid money to Afghanistan decreasing, many are seeking to use entrepreneurship to improve the economy and empower its citizens.
As 80% of Afghanis work in agriculture as farmers, the decision for Rumi Spice to seek them as suppliers was fairly simple. However, the business culture landscape in Afghanistan was one that founders all had to adjust to. In the country, business for the most part is based on trust and relationship building rather than signing formal agreements. Founders found that some of the contacts they made during their deployments were willing and able to work with them, and used this as the basis for their business.
Saffron was naturally the first choice of crops for Rumi Spice. The spice requires 150 flowers to produce a single gram, but this is worth it due to Afghanistan’s renowned reputation for being more flavorful due to the country’s terrain and climate. Rumi Spice wanted to give Afghan farmers an alternative to growing opium poppies, which is a source for heroin. And although the farmers were not sure whether they could trust them at first, once they saw how much saffron the company was able to sell internationally, they received much more interest. The number of farmers working as suppliers has doubled since 2015.
With the opening of a processing plant, the company will also hire a total of 300 to 400 Afghan women for the 2016 harvest. Rumi Spice is expected to reach revenues of $500,000, and became profitable 3 months ago. Of the founders, Jung and Miller work full-time in the U.S., while the other two work with them part time. There are also an additional two full-time employees that are based in both Chicago and Afghanistan. Although the process has taken some time, Rumi Spice continues to grow and improve Afghanistan’s economy.