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opinion | Dan Ward

Afghanistan’s future lies with small farmers

Saffron farms in Afghanistan supplant opium fields and bring sustainable income to the region. Now a group of veterans is importing the rare spice stateside.

Afghan workers plucked saffron flowers on a farm in Herat, Afghanistan. In western Herat province, which borders Iran, the challenge is to convince farmers of the long-term benefits of replacing the growing of poppies with the purple crocus plants, whose highly prized stigmas produce the spice saffron.
Afghan workers plucked saffron flowers on a farm in Herat, Afghanistan. In western Herat province, which borders Iran, the challenge is to convince farmers of the long-term benefits of replacing the growing of poppies with the purple crocus plants, whose highly prized stigmas produce the spice saffron.file 2010/Majid Saeedi/Getty Images/Getty

Sitting in the Prince Street Cafe in Bedford, Kimberly Jung’s eyes light up as she sets a small glass jar of thin, rust-colored threads onto the table. It’s saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, and this particular sample represents some of the highest quality saffron available anywhere. It also represents her hope for the future, both for herself as an entrepreneur in Boston and for the farmers half a world away in Afghanistan.

The United States and NATO formally ended their combat mission in Afghanistan last week, 13 years after the American-led invasion to capture Osama bin Laden and topple the country’s Taliban-led government began. One of the tougher parts of that mission has been to shore up the Afghan economy in a sustainable manner and discourage the cultivation of poppies, which are used to make opium.

Despite more than a decade of Western-backed efforts to curb opium production and despite the United States having spent $7.6 billion on poppy eradication, Afghans planted 400,000 acres of the flower in 2013 — the most acreage to date — according to a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction published in October. Estimates of Taliban income from opium range from $150 million to $200 million each year.

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Jung, however, is working to offer farmers another path. Her vision began in 2010, as a captain in the US Army. For four months, she led a platoon in Afghanistan’s Wardak and Ghazni provinces as part of a provincial reconstruction team.

Like many veterans, Jung feels a deep connection to the place she served in and sees it as more than a combat zone, its people as more than victims of war and oppression. “I believe Afghanistan is worth investing in,” she says. “It has a lot to offer.”

After five years in uniform, Jung hung up her combat boots to pursue an MBA at Harvard Business School. She began her studies with a decidedly conventional path in mind. “Maybe consulting, maybe investment banking,” she said. “But that didn’t excite me. I wanted to do something with more impact on the world.” This desire for meaning brought her imagination back to Afghanistan and eventually to the precious spice in her glass jar.

In March, she co-founded Rumi Spice with several other veterans. The company’s idea is strikingly simple: to connect Afghanistan saffron farmers with American spice markets. If all goes well, the benefits are enormous and far-reaching. Farmers have the ability to earn up to six times the annual income derived from growing opium poppies, the Taliban’s drug-based cash flow gets disrupted, and discerning chefs can stock their spice racks with organic, socially responsible saffron — that also happens to be superior to alternatives from Spain and Iran. As the Rumi Spice website explains, they are not just cultivating saffron. They are cultivating peace.

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Saffron on a measuring spoon.
Saffron on a measuring spoon.jorge gonzalez

Jung returned to Herat in June 2014, this time as a civilian, to build relationships with local farmers. Five months later, over the Thanksgiving holiday, her Rumi Spice colleague Carol Wang flew to Afghanistan to pick up six kilograms of saffron and carry them back to the states for packaging and distribution. Despite the challenges of doing business in a country with extremely limited transportation and banking systems, Jung expects to make a profit on this batch. She and her team are committed to reinvesting a portion of those profits into infrastructure development for the farmers, including local processing and packaging capabilities.

Dana Strayton, the owner of Prince Street, comes over to see how we enjoyed our meals. I introduce the two entrepreneurs. “Sure, I cook with saffron,” Strayton responds as she hears Jung’s pitch. They talk about soil quality, purity, pricing, the rewards and challenges of starting a small business, and the logistical difficulties of doing business in Afghanistan.

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Starting a new business is never easy. Doing so in a country with a 28 percent literacy rate, a tenuous security situation, and scarce access to things like electricity and clean water cranks the difficulty up to a whole new level. Nevertheless, Jung is undaunted. She exudes the quiet confidence and energy that are so often hallmarks of a veteran. “I’m all in,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone. “We’re planning five, 10 years out. We’re going to make this work.”

As she puts her samples away, Jung continues, “Small farmers are the future of Afghanistan.” Under her leadership, Rumi Spice is determined to help those farmers build security, stability, and prosperity, one thin red thread at a time.

Related:

Editorial: Afghanistan’s last chance

Joan Vennochi: Gains — and danger — spur women in Afghanistan

Nadia Hashimi: Turning daughters into sons, Afghans empower girls

Editorial: Iraq offers cautionary tale for US withdrawal from Afghanistan


Lieutenant Colonel Dan Ward is an acquisition officer in the US Air Force and the author of “F.I.R.E. – How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation.” The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force or Department of Defense.