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Afghan Saffron Coming To U.S. Stores


For Afghanistan, it can be the small victories that count. And let's hear about one now. For the first time since America sent troops there in 2001, Afghanistan is sending back food available throughout the U.S. The fledgling company Rumi Spice announced this week that its saffron will be on the shelves of Whole Foods this fall.

That's the rich red spice that creates golden dishes. It flourishes in the fields of Afghanistan - fields that the combat veterans who founded Rumi Spice know well. Kimberly Jung is one. Joining us are the other two founders, Keith Alaniz in Chicago and Emily Miller here in our D.C. studio. Good morning.

KEITH ALANIZ: Good morning.

EMILY MILLER: Thank you for having us.

MONTAGNE: Why don't you tell us how you came up with this idea. Obviously, you were both in Afghanistan at one point.

ALANIZ: Yes, that's correct. Our story really starts with a farmer named Haji Yosef. When I was serving in Afghanistan, Haji Yosef came up to me. And he was growing this incredible saffron. And, as Haji Yosef explained, you know, he would grow more saffron, except that he can only sell it in his local market.

So I talked to my partners, Emily and Kim, who, at the time, were in Harvard Business School. And we thought, what if we can connect Afghan farmers with the international market? And by doing so, we can create a demand for their products, which would create jobs in Afghanistan and lead to stability and peace.

MONTAGNE: So why did you pick saffron?

MILLER: Saffron is the world's most expensive spice. We also realized it's an economic alternative to opium. It is a beautiful spice that is hand-picked by thousands of laborers in just a few weeks during the harvest - in October, November. And we realized it presented a really phenomenal opportunity for the farmers and for the women of Afghanistan.

ALANIZ: It was a very opportune product for us to use because its price-to-weight ratio is such that we can ship it profitably by air. So that made starting out, you know, very easy. We were able to just airship saffron from Afghanistan to the U.S.

But the utility of growing saffron is much better for the farmers in that they don't have the risk of running into the government confiscating their crops or the DEA burning down their fields. And most importantly, they don't have to work with nefarious forces like the Taliban.

MILLER: We should also mention USAID did a great job of laying the foundation - you know, really spreading the idea of growing the saffron. The gap that we saw was that these farmers didn't have a marketplace to sell it to. And that is really where we came in and realized that we could sell this incredibly high-quality, premium product to U.S. consumers.

MONTAGNE: You know, move back a little bit for just a quick moment. The both of you, and also Kim Jung, your - the other founder, you really were on some tough assignments in Afghanistan when you were there.

MILLER: I was on a team called Cultural Support Teams, supporting special operations on night raids. Kimberly was a route clearance platoon leader looking for roadside bombs. And Keith was serving as an AfPak Hands, so, essentially, a cultural specialist who spoke the language and worked with the local farmers in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: You know, why did you develop this attachment, at least strong enough to get you involved in this business venture?

ALANIZ: Well, one, the people and the culture are just something that will continue to draw you back to the country. It's a beautiful country. The people have so much hope after 30 years of war. In fact, most of the populace of Afghanistan has only known war their entire life. Yet, they still have this undying spirit that, you know, there's better days to come.

MILLER: You know, Keith also made a great point the other day. He said Afghanistan and veterans share something in common, and that is our narrative often gets written for us. And that really resonates with me because I think most Americans have a skewed perspective of what Afghanistan is actually like. They just see war and terror on the news. But it is a beautiful country and a resilient people.

MONTAGNE: That gets us to - actually to something because I think there's an interesting story in that. Why call it Rumi Spice?

ALANIZ: What we're trying to do is brand Afghanistan with things other than war and terrorism. Not many people realize that one of the most famous poets in the world is from Afghanistan, or spent a good portion of his life in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Do you have a line from the poet that sticks with you?

ALANIZ: There's a few of them. I think...

MILLER: So many of them.

ALANIZ: Yeah. One of my favorite lines from Rumi is, where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure. And that's what we believe in Afghanistan.

MILLER: That's how we end all of our presentations on Afghanistan is with that quote.

ALANIZ: There's a good...

MILLER: Go ahead.

ALANIZ: Oh. Not a Rumi quote, but one of my favorite Afghan proverbs - it says (foreign language spoken), which means, a river is made drop by drop. And, you know, how we started our company - it was really just a crazy, audacious idea that started with 10 farmers thinking we would sell saffron to a handful of restaurants. And now we're about to be distributed nationally by Whole Foods. And we are really creating this river of change in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: Keith Alaniz and Emily Miller are two of the founders of Rumi Spice. Thanks, both of you, for joining us.

MILLER: Thank you for having us.

ALANIZ: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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