By Sue Anger
Not every veteran returns from deployment in Afghanistan with a plan for a business venture, but Emily Miller, Keith Alaniz, and Kimberly Jung are off to a strong start with their company, Rumi Spice. While serving on combat tours, the three former Army captains saw the opportunity to help Afghan farmers replace opium poppies with fields of saffron crocuses (like the one above). Unlike other substitute crops, saffron offers farmers a return six times greater than the return on heroin production.
While stationed in Afghanistan, Jung was assigned route clearance, and Miller led a cultural support team assigned to joint special operations task forces. At the time, the U.S. military was rebuilding urban centers at the expense of rural and agricultural areas, where 80 percent of the Afghan population resided. It also was destroying fields of opium poppies that supported the Taliban, without providing viable replacement crops for the farmers.
When Jung and Miller returned stateside in 2013, they earned MBA degrees from Harvard Business School in Boston. Jung kept in touch with Alaniz, who was serving as an advisor to government officials in Afghanistan at the time. Alaniz told Jung of a local saffron farmer who was having difficulty selling his product on the international market. Within months, Jung returned to Afghanistan and negotiated her first shipment of saffron, and Rumi Spice was born.
Once the company had been incorporated as a social enterprise in 2014, Alaniz spoke at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. “I feel personally invested in the future of Afghanistan … .Our nation has spent so much [in Afghanistan], and we personally sacrificed so much to be there,” she said. “It’s important to me that the country is successful.”
During the first year of Rumi’s operation, the company coached 11 farmers through the specialized cultivation of saffron. Today, the company partners directly with 94 farmers and hires more than 300 women during the saffron harvest. By providing these producers access to the international saffron marketplace, Rumi has become the largest foreign investor in Afghan agriculture.
In the global food market, saffron is considered “red gold,” because it sells for $2,500-3,000 per kilogram, making it the most expensive spice in the world. The high price reflects the spice’s labor-intensive growing, harvesting, and processing cycle. In October, each purple crocus flower must be handpicked early in the morning. A blossom produces three stigmas, or threads, which are plucked and dried to produce saffron. Up to 150,000 flowers are needed to create a single kilogram of saffron.
While saffron might seem exotic to most Westerners, the spice is widely used throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Chefs covet saffron’s unique flavor, which provides a floral essence to savory and sweet dishes alike.
In spite of its success, the fledgling company still faces challenges in Afghanistan, including poor transportation, tedious bureaucracy, illiteracy, unreliable payment methods, and lack of contract law enforcement. While Jung believes the U.S. military might have set Afghanistan on the road to peace, she also believes commercial enterprise will provide “the last mile” to sustainable prosperity and providing an economic alternative to farmers and access to the international marketplace builds stability in the country. “At the end of the day,” Jung says, “it’s businesses that will change the world.”
To read more about Rumi Spice’s cofounder and chief marketing officer, Emily Miller, and several other veteran entrepreneurs, visit www.moaa.org/entrepreneurs.