“When the saffron came into the room, you could smell it before you could see it. It was a heavenly smell.” Kimberly Jung was on a business trip to Afghanistan. She had an idea for a company that would change her relationship with the country, that could work against the portrayal of Afghanistan in the media as war-ravaged and opium-plagued.
A few years prior, Jung was deployed as an Army Engineer in Afghanistan looking for roadside bombs. “Every time we’d find one, a new one would take its place,” she told me over the phone. She left feeling as if there were no structures in place that centered long-term commitments to Afghanistan.
After the army, Jung attended Harvard Business School, where she sought ways to marry business and development. Could a business build into its mission a desire to affect change, to establish a precedent for peace? She mulled questions like this one. Along with Emily Miller, a former Army Engineer and Harvard Business School student herself, Jung returned to Afghanistan, this time with a different mission.
Afghanistan's land is rich with potential. Farmers sit on a special soil: Before war devastated the country's infrastructure, Afghanistan was responsible for 10 percent of the world's raisins. Jung swears that the pomegranates there are the best she's ever tasted.
Nonetheless, poppy growth for opium production continues to dominate much of the agricultural heavy-lifting in Afghanistan. The Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report that a record number of acres (810,488) were devoted to poppy cultivation in 2017. Rumi posits saffron growth and production as a potential alternative. Jung tells me that growing saffron can earn a farmer seven times more than growing poppies, and this might also help reduce opium addiction rates, too. Farmers and merchants are breathing new life into the country's vibrant supply economy, and saffron is just one option.
Saffron's value is folded into its appeal. A half gram of Rumi saffron retails at $8.99. Chefs use the ingredient carefully, sparingly. The fierce filaments native to Afghanistan release sweet, vegetal smells, and their shocking orange hue belies a subtle flavor. Saffron is mythic: “It’s the spices of kings and queens: Cleopatra used to bathe in saffron,” said Jung. The varieties grown in Afghanistan are often regarded as some of the world's best.
In 2014, along with Keith Alaniz, an Army Engineer deployed in Afghanistan, who Jung met during relief efforts for Hurricane Sandy, and Carol Wang, a lawyer who worked on rural development projects in Afghanistan’s countryside, Jung and Miller founded Rumi.
In the world of specialty food goods, Jung and Miller noticed a lack of personal touch. The Rumi founders weren't afraid to visits chefs in their kitchens or peddle at fancy food shows, and their door-to-door gumption paid off. They now service high-end restaurants nationwide—Rumi saffron can be found in the kitchens of The French Laundry and Le Bernardin. They are the southwest suppliers for Blue Apron and stock the shelves of Whole Foods and Central Market. Home cooks can purchase their saffron and spice blends directly from their website.
Rumi owns a processing plant in Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan. Last year, they hired 384 Afghan women. This year, they will increase that number to over a thousand. This commitment to hiring women is central to their mission. As Jung tells me, women were always the ones drying saffron, just in their homes or on carpets in the sun. Now, they gather in one place to remove the golden filaments from the inside of bright purple flowers and dry them. The women are essential to the process, they have the extensive and specialized knowledge about that segment of the saffron processing chain—Rumi only entered to standardize the procedure.
Initially, they had to ask husbands and fathers for permission to bring women to the factory, because they didn’t want the women of the community working in an unsafe or compromising capacity. It was a matter of building trust, establishing wasata, an Arabic term that translates roughly to reputation. Rumi pays each woman directly, at the dollar value. They can now participate in the local economy on their own terms.
The company has been careful, and purposeful, in their efforts to establish sustainable relationships with growers. Where Jung and her partners were initially met with reluctance, they now receive handshakes and invitations to coffee. “We buy saffron, take it, and come back every year. They get it,” said Jung. Now farmers greet Jung excitedly and participate willingly in promotional videos. A 2016 report shows how saffron production has more than doubled over the course of a year. The Afghan government has been quick to offer support to saffron farmers in the form of machinery, training, seeds, and financial compensation.
An attention to personal care is something that carries across the Rumi supply chain. On the other end, Rumi is careful to make sure customers know where their spices come from: farmers who plant saffron flowers and the families they feed with money earned. Jung’s commitment to spreading this knowledge feels necessary, particularly as the global market for goods expands in seemingly infinite directions. A product like saffron can so easily feel disassociated from its origins. This is not what Jung and Rumi’s founders want.
“We try to bring the customers more recipes and talk about where things come from and the local economy in Herat," said Jung. Their site features a trove of recipes that feature the special spice, like saffron herb pistachio rice or Persian saffron ice cream. That earthy, red, and toasty flavor has a life beyond the confines of the kitchen, the restaurant, the grocery aisle. Rumi reminds us that saffron is the sum of its parts: the expectant earth it's grown in, the farmers who pluck blooms in the late October light, and a growing community of women who gather to pull petals and hand-pick saffron strands, one by one.