Veterans behind Rumi Spice source saffron directly from Afghan farmers

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: Rumi Spice
Photo: Rumi Spice
Sold in a variety of channels, including direct to consumers and to foodservice entrepreneurs, Rumi Spice delivers quality saffron in a category full of mistrust.

Afghanistan has the ideal climate to grow saffron, one similar to parts of Spain and Iran, the two leading nations when it comes to saffron production. One Chicago-based start-up, Rumi Spice​, is aiding saffron farmers in this Central Asian country to enter a global market.

As the most expensive spice on the market​, saffron is notorious for being a commodity rife with adulteration and imposters. “A lot of the buyers that we’ve talked to are very sceptical,”​ Kimberly Jung, CEO and co-founder of Rumi Spice, told FoodNavigator-USA.

“[The buyers] have met so many saffron dealers, but none of them are like us. We’re military veterans who’ve served in Afghanistan, we know exactly the plot of land that our saffron comes from, we know the names of the farmers and their families. We’ve worked with them, we’ve had dinner with them. This is a very transparent organization,”​ she added.

Creating a bigger impact

Three of the four co-founders are US Army veterans who were deployed in Afghanistan, and left the country feeling that there is more they can do to leave a positive impact.

Jung was a route clearance platoon leader, which means she checked the roadside for bombs; Emily Miller, who serves as COO, served as one of the first female operators for Special Forces, working directly with Afghan women and children to build rapport between the US and host-nation. A third army veteran on staff, Keith Alaniz, speaks fluent Afghan Farsi. 

Kimberly Jung served as a route clearance platoon leader in Afghanistan for the US Army.

“We felt we needed to do more to leave a sustainable path to peace in Afghanistan, and we believe it’s through business,”​ Jung said. Saffron was the perfect choice—in addition to the right climate and terrain, the founders also saw planting crocuses as a better alternative to growing poppy for opium.

They named their company after the famous 13th​ century Persian poet​, born on Afghan soil. “He’s widely known and people really love his work on what he says about love, and what he says about going back to the primal root of being, about how we’re cut from the same cloth,”​ she said. “Some ways we can all come together is through food, and through trade.”

A delicate and strenuous task

June to October is the harvest season of Saffron, where workers diligently pick the three stigmas—red threads that jut out from the crocus flower’s crown—that saffron is made out of. It takes about 75,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of saffron, which costs upwards of $1,500​.

Since no machine can do the task, manual labor is required. An ounce of saffron in a tin from Rumi Spice costs $109, or $18.99 for a gram. The company also dabbles in spice blends, tea kits, and special packaging for gifts, all using the saffron harvested by Afghan farmers the company’s staff has gotten to know, processed in a facility Rumi Spice built in Afghanistan.

The company, funded mostly by the founders’ personal savings, is slowly expanding. Jung said their product will be on the Home Shopping Network soon, and talks with restaurateurs are an ongoing affair.

Big things are in the works for their farmers too. Rumi Spice doesn’t only buy and distribute the saffron; they train and educate the farmers. “We’ve taught them finance and capital cycles ahead of time, helping them lease the land, and helping them negotiate,” ​Jung said. Up next is training on ISO certifications, and Rumi Spice is strict on staying focused on sustainable business training, as opposed to carrying out other side projects—a popular move for businesses conducted in developing or politically unstable countries.

“We think that in order for us to really help grow stability in Afghanistan, it would be through the things we need to focus on, like selling saffron,”​ Jung said, imagining an ideal scenario: “We could use the money to, say, buy better drying machines, which means then we’re producing better quality saffron, and that would increase saffron sales in the U.S., and then, these farmers would be able to build their own schools for everybody else.”

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