SEATTLE, Washington — Saffron is one of the most prized spices in the world, termed by some as “red gold.” It is one of the most lucrative crops in the world, with one kilogram selling for anywhere from $1,200 to $4,000. Traditionally, India and Iran have dominated the saffron market. However, Afghanistan is slowly rising as one of the main producers of this spice. As of 2015, 26 out of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan produce saffron. The country has carved out its place in the saffron industry, occupying 6.3% of the market. Saffron production in Afghanistan could become a path to economic strength both for the nation as a whole and for individual farmers. Saffron could produce up to tens of millions of dollars of income per year for the country, and the head of the National Union of Saffron Growers of Afghanistan, Bashir Ahmad Rashidi, told the World Bank that the crop has the potential to save the country’s people from poverty.
Replacing Poppy Production with Saffron
Saffron production in Afghanistan is more than just a tool for economic growth. According to the United Nations Office for Drug and Crime, Afghanistan is one of the world’s top poppy producers. Poppy is a precursor to heroin. However, Afghanistan’s government is looking to support saffron production as a way to incentivize farmers to transition away from poppy cultivation. Saffron can earn a farmer up to seven times more than poppies.
Saffron is also uniquely positioned to be a sustainable poppy alternative in Afghanistan. The saffron plant requires little water and thus will not be impacted by droughts, which are common in Afghanistan. Additionally, since saffron has such a high market value, farmers do not need much land to grow the crop. Thus, it is an accessible enterprise for many Afghan farmers.
One of the initiatives supporting saffron production in Afghanistan is the Afghanistan Rural Enterprise Development Program. The World Bank and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund support this program. The AREDP organizes Afghanistan’s rural poor and helps them gain market connections and technical support. So far, the AREDP has held five national exhibitions about saffron cultivation. Also, the AREDP has funded six trips to India for saffron enterprises from Afghanistan’s Herat Province to expose the farmers to knowledge and skills. According to Rahmatullah Quraishi, the executive director of the AREDP, saffron enterprises that participated in the exposure trips experience an increase of 90 5in sales and 20% in employment.
Growing Saffron to Empower Women
Saffron cultivation also offers employment opportunities for Afghanistan’s women. Women hold much of the specialized knowledge about the drying and refining part of the saffron production process. Also, women account for around 80% of saffron production in Afghanistan, including steps like harvesting, refining and packaging.
In the past, traders would often unfairly compensate female saffron growers, grossly underpaying them. Afghanistan’s female saffron growers took matters into their own hands and established their own saffron association, eliminating the middlemen. One such group is the Ghoryan Women’s Saffron Association in Herat. Afghanistan’s Agricultural Development Fund, an Afghan government organization that is supported by the U.S., provides capital to the women in the Ghoryan Women’s Saffron Association. In 2014, the Association received a loan of $300,000 and was able to financially support 800 female entrepreneurs.
Some private saffron companies have also centered on empowering women in their business practice. In 2014, the company Rumi was founded. Rumi owns a processing plant in Herat that employs over 1,000 women. The company directly pays the women for their work, which gives them economic autonomy and allows them to participate in the market on their own terms.
Saffron production in Afghanistan has the potential to be a tool for both economic and social mobility. In the years to come, with support from the government and other organizations, saffron will become a source of steady and sustainable income.
– Antoinette Fang