Entrepreneurs

Spice Company In Afghanistan Stays Committed To Its Farmers

Rumi Spice, which operates largely in Afghanistan, working with farmers to source one of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron, is staying committed to its mission and business, despite the political changes in the region.

Over 4,000 women have historically helped with the saffron harvest, which takes place in Herat province every year. Patti Doyle, CEO of Rumi Spice says, “Yes, we’ll likely hit some bumps in the road. But we’re going to continue to operate and support our farmers.”

On average, the business helps source over 200 kilograms of saffron from Afghanistan each year, which is then sold direct-to-consumer, but also to chefs and restaurants. In addition to the political unrest, Doyle says that climate change has created more challenges. “Drought and dry conditions have resulted in crop losses in recent years. And most of our spices are from the region [Herat] that’s experiencing this.”

Since the crops are largely rain-fed, this is a frustrating problem for farmers who reported seeing just 4 to 5 inches of rain in one season, the lowest in 20 years. 

But Rumi Spice is a company that’s been built around overcoming challenges, Doyle says. Started by three military vets — Emily Miller, Kim Jung, and Keith Alaniz — in 2014, the trio began with their own funds, selling the spices at local markets, before acquiring any capital. Over the last 6 years, they’ve now raised funds (about $2.5 million), been on Shark Tank, and made the Afghan-grown saffron a feature at notable restaurants around the country.

Thus Doyle who took over as CEO is not fazed by roadblocks. But there are practical challenges the company has to reckon with now: disruptions in flights which would affect their ability to export goods quickly, a different cultural climate to operate business in, and overall uncertainty of what may come.

That said, Rumi Spice saw a bump in sales during the pandemic, despite restaurants being closed, Doyle says. “I think the mission of the company has really resonated with our customers. It’s not just about a spice.”

It takes about 80,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron, which is all hand plucked. The labor involved in harvesting the spice makes it costly, as well as the amount needed to produce just 1 gram of it. In addition, all of Rumi’s spices are grown organically. “We ensure that there are no chemicals or pesticides being used in areas near the crop. And the wild foraged items are just that wild — so organic by nature.”

That “why” has led them to launch new products, such as the Wild Black Cumin, which comes from the Hindu Kush mountains and grows wild in the region. Plus, they’ve added spice blends to make it easier for the American consumer. These new additions have also enabled the company to broaden their scope, Doyle says, now reaching over 500 farmers.

Just as “direct trade” is used in the coffee industry, it’s relevant here as well, she notes. “There aren’t really any middlemen. Our spices come directly from the farmers, and sometimes we have to do a bit of packaging in Turkey. But the spices are as direct trade as they get.”

It’s that direct trade, which Doyle says, has been most impactful. When the founders started the company, they had all served in Afghanistan, and engaged with farmers who told them that they sometimes didn’t have buyers for their crops. So Rumi Spice became a modern-day spice trader to help them access more markets, beyond what could be sold in the country and in the region. “It’s an art that’s been done for years.”

It was stories of economic growth and financial independence for farmers that led the trio to start the company. Now, with thousands of women, and hundreds of farmers as a part of this enterprise, Doyle says they’re even more committed to seeing Rumi Spice through.

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