Army veteran Keith Alaniz had spent nearly a decade on active duty by the time he met Haji Yusef, a farmer selling high-quality saffron at his local market in Afghanistan. That encounter sparked Rumi Spice, which Alaniz co-founded with fellow veterans Kimberly Jung and Emily Miller. The Chicago-based company — winner of the Grand Prize in the 2018 FedEx Small Business Grant Contest — is far more than an importer. It has innovated the way saffron is processed and has jump-started global demand for the spice. Since the company’s 2014 founding, imports of saffron from Afghanistan to the United States have grown 700 percent each year — and there’s no sign of any slowdown. Access connected with Alaniz, who serves as the company’s president, to get the story behind his company’s red-hot success.
The idea for Rumi Spice came after meeting this one farmer, Haji Yusef. What did you see in him — and in saffron?
His saffron was incredible. And he explained to me that he would grow more, except that he could only sell it in his local market, in his village. It got me thinking — and this is a problem I’ve seen across all industries but particularly in agriculture — that Afghans are growing some tremendous produce that’s never been seen outside of Afghanistan. And people just don’t know about it because they’ve been completely cut off from international trade for 30 years.
So, I thought, this is an opportunity to open up markets, particularly U.S. markets, to Afghan farmers and source from them directly. And by doing it, we can create a demand for Afghan products. And if we create a demand, we’ll catalyze economic development in these rural areas where it hasn’t really reached through these 18 years of international intervention in Afghanistan. And if we can provide economic development, we’re going to provide jobs. If we can provide jobs, it’s going to provide stability. And we can achieve a peaceful and stable Afghanistan through business and not through bullets.
The economic story is amazing. But what makes Afghan saffron different from what was already being imported?
Like most spices, what’s commonly available here in the U.S. is often of low quality and oftentimes adulterated. And particularly in saffron, where it’s a very high-value spice, there’s a lot of incentive for adulteration along the road. Before most of the saffron out there gets to the U.S., it changes hands many times, with people all over the world aggregating and mixing it. It’s been dyed red. It contains things other than saffron. So by cutting out the middle man, we’re getting our saffron directly from the farmers.
And you’re able to do that because you process the saffron yourselves, right?
Yes. One of our innovations was to create these saffron processing centers in Afghanistan, because processing on the farmer level creates a couple of problems. First, there’s a capacity constraint on how much saffron farmers can grow, because they can only grow what they can process. And then from a quality-control perspective, the challenge is that you really can’t maintain consistent quality over hundreds of farmers in different homes.
But the processing centers have also allowed us to do something cool that we didn’t really set out with an intent to do but has really become key to our mission, and that’s to hire and empower Afghan women. During the Taliban time, women were not allowed to work outside the home, and in Afghan society, it’s really a new thing for women to be able to earn an actual wage. So we’re really proud that we’re the largest employer of women in Afghanistan. We hire up to 1,900 women seasonally during the harvest period, and we hope to expand that social impact as we continue to grow.
What an incredible source of pride. But there’s more. What about the impact you’ve had on the farmers?
I was talking to Haji Ibrahim, one of our farmers that we work with, and he was telling me how, before, the only Americans he’d really seen were soldiers in what he calls “tanks.” A lot of these rural Afghans have only seen U.S. soldiers walking around like storm troopers, coming through their fields. They don’t know anything else about Americans. And now they’ve kind of met the people — the Rumi team, for example — and they know the product they grow in their fields is being sold on the shelves all across the U.S. That’s a real point of pride for them to know that.
The change in that dynamic is important. Because the next time some group like the Taliban goes around and tries to tell rural Afghans that Americans are evil, or that they’re here to destroy your way of life, the farmer can say, “No. They’re our customers. They’re providing for me and my family. We love the Americans. We’re very proud to be selling to the Americans.”
Remarkable! And they’re selling to a pretty incredible range of American consumers. Tell us about them.
We started really trying to reach chefs and high-end restaurants because they recognize and appreciate quality. So we have a lot of great Michelin star, five-star chefs that are fans of Rumi — people from Eric Ripert [of Le Bernardin] to Daniel Boulud [of Daniel and Café Boulud] to Thomas Keller [of The French Laundry]. They’re some of the biggest chefs in the country, and they’re using Rumi saffron. They love the story. They love the social impact. But mostly, they love the product. As for individual consumers, we really target your home cook, your foodie — people who like to cook in the kitchen and like to have the best ingredients. Having a source of really high-quality saffron is giving us a lot of fans, and we see that our customers keep coming back and giving us order after order.
You recently landed your biggest order. Tell us more.
Whole Foods just took us on nationwide, with Rumi Spice in all stores starting last October. My hope is that that’s going to be our inflection point — having nationwide distribution in Whole Foods. It will allow us to reach a lot more people and really grow the brand.
Learn more about the FedEx Small Business Grant Contest and meet the other 2018 winners at fedex.com/grantcontest.