Rumi Spice — A Business on a Mission to Do Good
How a Veteran-Run Business Delivering Top Quality Saffron is Changing Lives Abroad
For two Army officers who served combat tours in Afghanistan, there’s unfinished business to support Afghanistan and its people
2018 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest Grand Prize Winner
Rumi Spice started with a conversation, but it wasn’t a typical business meeting. While serving in the Army in Afghanistan, Keith Alaniz met Haji Yusef, a farmer trying to sell saffron in his local market.
“He said he thought could sell more if only he could expand to other buyers,” explained Keith. Keith contacted friend and veteran Kim Jung, who was studying at Harvard Business School, about the opportunity. “That’s when the idea of the business emerged, opening up international markets to Afghanistan’s world-class saffron product.” It was a seed of an idea that would help farmers in Afghanistan find greater demand, create jobs and help drive economic development in the region, creating a virtuous cycle of development.
Kim and Keith founded their company, Rumi Spice, to work directly with Afghan farmers to import their high-quality saffron to the United States. Since they started, they have opened three processing facilities, developed a network of more than 300 farmers and hired nearly 2,000 Afghan women during harvest season. The company now makes up 3.6 percent of Afghanistan’s total foreign direct investment in agriculture.
At a functional level, Rumi Spice helps connect Afghan farmers to the international market by marketing and distributing their crop, but the business is so much more than that. Keith and Kim believe in using their business to build a sustainable future of peace for Afghanistan. “This way of doing business is transformative,” said Kim. “Not only for the people that we work with, but also for how people see Afghanistan from the outside. I think our business helps show Afghanistan is a place that you can do business with. They can bring some of the best products in the world to the international market.”
Kim and Keith believe creating demand for Afghan agricultural products will catalyze rural economic development, which is especially important since the large majority of the Afghan population is reliant on the rural agricultural economy.
“We’re stimulating the local economy and allowing women greater freedom by providing job opportunities and the ability for these women to earn direct wages,” said Kim. “The introduction of Afghan saffron into the international market has opened new doors for farmers and provided a pathway to a higher quality of life. These Afghans are not recipients of charity; they are part of the supply chain.”
Developing a business, bridging two nations and cultures came with a unique set of challenges. To get the business off the ground, they had to develop relationships with local Afghan farmers, and building trust in the community was critical for their success. “Contract law doesn’t exist in Afghanistan the way it does in the U.S.,” said Keith. “Agreements are all based on trust, and, understandably, the farmers were probably skeptical the first time they sold to us.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, Kim had to cold call restaurants, selling their saffron product directly. “Three years later, farmers are doubling and tripling production now that they feel confident that we will be able to fulfill our side of the deal,” said Keith. Rumi Spice’s saffron is now sold to some of the best restaurants in the United States as well as in retail, wholesale and online.
They feel their military service essentially prepared them to create their own business. “I really think being in the military is an entrepreneurial experience,” said Kim. “You’re often put in a situation with an ambiguous mission and you don’t have enough resources to get things done ― just like running a small business."
While it might seem an unlikely path, Kim said it’s not all that different from their past life. “People thought we were crazy when we opened the business, but it’s just another mission for us.”
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