But Will It Scale in Kabul?
As troops draw down in Afghanistan, a handful of ambitious U.S. veterans are launching start-ups in the country where they once went to war.
For many veterans who served in Afghanistan, the idea of returning to a country where they once deployed as warfighters is unfathomable — an unwanted reminder of lost friends and scars that still run deep. But to the three veterans who founded Rumi Spice, a Chicago-based saffron company, their mission in Afghanistan was incomplete, even after they hung up their uniforms. Conceived as a public-benefit corporation, Rumi Spice partners directly with Afghan farmers to produce, process, and distribute Afghan saffron on the international market.
In 2010, as a first lieutenant and platoon commander of Route Clearance Patrol (RCP) 44, Kimberly Jung had the dangerous mission of searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on Afghanistan’s notorious Highway 1 — also known as the “highway of death.” Those missions could last anywhere from two hours to two days, mostly in the country’s western provinces like Herat. Jung talks about those missions with an unexpected calm. “Most of the time, looking for IEDs is really boring. Until,” she says, “something happens.”
On one day when something “happened,” one of the soldiers in her unit was hit by an IED. “He used to be really jovial,” Jung remembers. “But afterwards, he became really angry.”
But rather than blame the Afghan men who planted those IEDs, Jung understood that their motivation was economic, not political. During her deployment, Jung watched as the land allotment for young men — the financial lifeline in rural Afghanistan — constantly shrunk. She knew that the young Afghan men who couldn’t find work were left to seek out paramilitary means to earn an income. And for Jung, the never-ending cycle of unemployment and IEDs was not only a pure ideological problem but also a deeply economic one.
And that problem, Jung believed, was both futile — and avoidable. “All it does is leave thousands of broken lives on both sides,” she says.
The idea to start Rumi Spice came in March 2013, four years after Jung’s deployment, when Jung and Emily Miller, a former Army engineering officer, were both students at Harvard Business School. Miller had served a few provinces away in Paktika, Afghanistan. Attached to Ranger and Special Forces units, Miller rappelled into towns during night raids pursuing high-value targets. And like Jung, Miller had witnessed the same violence-inducing cycle that limits the choices of Afghan civilians.
After a conversation with another fellow veteran, Keith Alaniz, they learned of an Afghan farmer named Haji Yosef from Wardak province, who had a warehouse filled with saffron but no customers. Jung and Miller saw a chance to change the economic dynamic in a country held hostage by the opium trade. For years, opium, the essential ingredient to heroin, served as Afghanistan’s primary cash crop, filling the coffers of warlords and the Taliban with billions of dollars.
Tragically, average Afghan farmers must choose between cultivating highly profitable opium for the very fighters tearing their country apart or cultivating a less profitable, but legitimate crop and risking punitive violence for doing so.
Admittedly, saffron production is extremely difficult, requiring “70,000 flowers for each pound of saffron, which works out at one acre per 10lb,” according to the Telegraph. Yet, the complications of saffron production make it the world’s most expensive spice, averaging $1,500 per pound or $15 per gram. Nevertheless, despite the high demand and profit margins of saffron, the average Afghan saffron farmer earns roughly $400 to $600 annually, a small fraction of the crop’s market value.
Determined to empower Afghan saffron farmers, Jung hand-carried the first shipment of saffron from Herat and Wardak in July 2013. She went door-to-door selling saffron to local markets and restaurants in the Boston area. By 2015, Rumi Spice’s network included more than 40 farmers in Afghanistan and paid direct wages to 75 Afghan women, who process and dry the saffron. In addition, the firm reinvests at least 10 percent of its profits back into infrastructure, like processing facilities, working capital for farmers, and machines — totaling 3.6 percent of Afghanistan’s entire agricultural FDI. In November 2015, Rumi Spice established its first processing facility in Herat.
For Jung, empowering Afghan women is particularly meaningful. Recalling her deployment, Jung says, “I [loved] to go into the villages even if that wasn’t what we were supposed to do. [We’d] seek out the young Afghan girls and hand out little things — pencils, erasers, candy.” But then, she says, the young boys would come over and extend their hands, as if to say, “Give it to me.” “The girls were always left with nothing,” Jung says. “And that’s when I realized I wanted to do something meaningful, something impactful.”