In 2014, best friends Kimberly Jung and Emily Miller were working toward MBAs at Harvard Business School, thinking about the next steps in their lives as civilians. After meeting at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, both had served tours in Afghanistan (Jung as a route clearance platoon leader, Miller as a cultural support team leader attached to special operations forces) and gained a deep admiration for the people there. So when they got a call from their friend Keith Alaniz proposing a business idea that might benefit those people, they were eager to hear more.
Alaniz, an in-country advisor to provincial governance in Afghanistan who spoke the Dari language, had met a local farmer who was growing amazing saffron—the most expensive spice in the world, beloved for the complex aromatic flavor and vibrant yellow color it brings to Middle Eastern and other cuisines. Unfortunately for the farmer, because of the war, “no one from abroad was willing to go to Afghanistan for it,” says Alaniz. And there were many others in his position: the whole country’s industry was in danger, despite producing some of the best saffron out there.
Alaniz realized that his, Jung’s, and Miller’s unique combination of military and business experience could open doors for these farmers. The three soon founded Rumi (named for the 13th-century Persian poet), a company that helps to grow saffron locally and sell it globally. Beyond doubling and even tripling the individual farmers’ incomes, Rumi is working to bolster Afghanistan’s agriculture in a big way: by unseating the opium crop. With an economy dominated by opium, an illicit drug that drives revenue for terrorist groups, the country badly needs a different crop to grow and export en masse. “Saffron is the perfect alternative,” says Alaniz. “It grows in a similar climate, and is actually more profitable for farmers.”
Now in its third year, Rumi partners with nearly 100 farmers, representing an unmatched foreign investment in Afghanistan’s agriculture. “What we’re doing is different from the aid donor community,” Alaniz explains. “As a for-profit business, we’re not handing over money. We’re reinvesting it back into the economy, encouraging development.” The farmers start planting saffron in late spring, tending to the crop for two seasons. Once the purple flowers open, in late fall, they’re harvested and transported to special facilities, where their bright-red stigmas—the base of the spice—are extracted, trimmed, cleaned, and dried.
Rumi reserves these production jobs for women, who also fill a number of managerial roles in the facilities. The company has, in fact, become Afghanistan’s largest private-sector employer of women, with 300 hired last year alone. “They’re the foundation of what we do,” says Jung. Discussing a trip during which she joined a group of women in the fields for the harvest, she fondly recalls, “We broke into a mini dance party to a Beyoncé song, and they sang all the words even though they don’t speak English.”
Jung attributes much of Rumi’s success to what brought her, Miller, and Alaniz together in the first place. “Veterans can make the best entrepreneurs,” she declares. “We know how to get things done: we were in combat with limited resources and missions to accomplish.” Billionaire Mark Cuban of ABC’s Shark Tank, a reality show in which entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to potential investors, recently agreed. Based in part on the strength of the trio’s military and business resumes, Cuban decided to invest $250,000 in Rumi, empowering the young company to keep growing—for instance, expanding their line of saffron products like spice blends and even teas. (Personally, Alaniz vouches for the benefits of saffron tea, while Jung recommends using the spice to make cream sauces for savory dishes.)
Just as importantly, Rumi’s success is tied to the extraordinary quality of their saffron. Although the best product is often associated with Iran and Spain, Afghanistan’s hot, dry climate and mountainous, yet fertile terrain make for perfect growing conditions. The result is quantifiable: international grading of the spice factors in crocin (the compound responsible for its color), and Rumi’s surpasses the minimum required content by nearly 25%. “People think of Afghanistan as desolate,” says Jung, “but its land and its people have so much to offer.”