What It Takes to Start a Business in a War-Torn Country
The Rumi Spice founders are not your average founders. Kimberly Jung and Keith Alaniz shared the story of how they turned their experience serving in war into a beautiful business that's making an important impact in Afghanistan.
This post was written by Keith Alaniz, Co-Founder of Rumi Spice.
Most people associate Afghanistan with war, terrorism, and opium. As US Army Veterans, we’ve seen that side of Afghanistan, but we’ve also seen a very different side with tremendous potential. There’s a saying that luck is preparedness meets opportunity. Rumi’s beginning was exactly that, a confluence of unique experiences coupled with the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world… and maybe enough naiveté and audaciousness to give it a try.
Through four years of working in Afghanistan I noticed a recurring problem. Afghanistan has great produce, some of which is grown nowhere else, but farmers will not produce more than they can sell and they can only sell in their local markets. The international community spent millions of dollars post-2001 to build Afghanistan capacity. But, due to a focus on inputs rather than outputs, little attention was paid to creating a market for Afghan products. Unsurprisingly Afghanistan output has been sluggish despite the massive investment.
This all came to point in a single farmer, Haji Yosef. Haji Yosef approached me with some exquisite saffron. You could smell its fragrance before you saw it. He was looking for help to sell his product, explaining that he could grow more if he could only sell it outside of his village. That’s when Kim and I thought, maybe we can create a business, bring Afghanistan saffron to US markets, and catalyze economic development by providing demand.
Little did we know that the saffron industry in the US was rife with adulteration, dubious sourcing, and quality issues. What we were able to offer was not only a great story, but an exceptional quality product that blew away any competitors.
What followed was simply an iterative process of improving supply. When we started, saffron was processed by traditional methods: families in their homes. This presented not only a quality control problem, but a capacity issue as farmer’s production was limited to what they could process. By introducing centralized processing we were able to unlock this capacity while improving quality. The new processing also allowed us to hire women workers, something sorely needed in a society where, under the Taliban, women were not allowed to work outside the home.
Today, we are the largest employer of Afghan women, hiring 1,952 during our last harvest. Each farmer in our network has doubled and tripled production year over year, and our network has grown from 10 to over 300 farmers. We’ve continued to improve year over year, implementing systems and processes that have allowed us to take a great product and make it even better, bringing it to restaurants such as Daniel, the French Laundry, and to consumers through Blue Apron and direct from our website.
Because of our experience in the Chobani incubator, we’re thinking much larger about our mission. The problems of dubious sourcing and poor quality in the saffron industry are something that exists in the spice industry as a whole. If we can do this with saffron from Afghanistan, why not other spices where we can bring spices direct from farmers? The spice aisle is dominated by one or two brands. Spices are an afterthought, not a destination. Spices were the first truly global food product, brought from East Asia to Europe as early as 2000 BC. We want to revitalize the Silk Road and make the spice aisle a destination where you can buy saffron from Afghan farmers like Haji Yosef – the same saffron that Daniel Belous uses in his saffron halibut crème sauce, and serve them to your family. We believe that spices should have a story to tell, food should connect people, and food can be a force for good.