KABUL, Afghanistan — Within the early days of Taliban management within the 1990s, a low-paid agricultural employee started touring from village to village in Afghanistan’s west with an unlikely pitch to farmers: swap from their conventional wheat crop and concentrate on saffron, the notoriously labor-intensive spice.
To many individuals, together with among the man’s personal bosses at a Danish assist group, the proposal was misdirected, possibly even silly, and definitely nicely above his $50-a-month pay grade. Afghanistan was within the midst of a brutal drought with famine threatening. Conserving Afghans fed was the precedence.
However the assist employee, Hashim Aslami, was adamant, arguing to farmers and his bosses alike that although harvesting the spice might be tough and time consuming, the monetary returns might be substantial: Referred to as “purple gold,” saffron can promote for as a lot as $700 a pound on the native market and way more elsewhere. Saffron may even be an economically aggressive substitute for the opium poppy, Mr. Aslami argued, although he conceded it’s not appropriate for all areas of the nation.
He ultimately satisfied the higher-ups, successful a $100 grant to start a pilot program on 4 farms in Herat Province.
Twenty years later, Mr. Aslami, a soft-spoken, 63-year-old with what stays of his hair dyed jet black, is without doubt one of the proud visionaries of a uncommon success story: a $25 million export business that continues to develop regardless of the nation’s seemingly limitless warfare. Afghanistan is now the third-largest saffron producer on the earth, behind Iran and India.
Mr. Aslami has risen to turn out to be the federal government’s high adviser within the flourishing saffron sector, which he says is rising by about 20 % a 12 months. As somebody who apparently sees work as the last word objective in life, his waking hours are spent immersed in saffron, in conferences, in studying, in on a regular basis dialog.
“Besides when I’m asleep, the remainder of the time is all on saffron,” Mr. Aslami stated with a smile, throughout an interview at his small condo above a financial institution in central Kabul, the Afghan capital. His spouse of 30 years, Talat Aslami, sat beside him.
Even his goals, he stated, have been infiltrated by the spice.
“I as soon as dreamed that every one my needs had been achieved,” he stated, “that we had been producing 50 % of the world’s saffron and all these issues. And what was I going to do now?”
“Rapidly, that shook me awake,” he stated, laughing.
In the intervening time, that dream is way from being realized. Afghan saffron accounts for less than about four % of world manufacturing. Of the roughly 430 tons of saffron produced final 12 months, 16 got here from Afghanistan, Mr. Aslami stated. Most of it, 90 %, got here from Iran, which is the place he first realized in regards to the spice.
He arrived there as a refugee in 1981, recent from incomes a level in agriculture at Kabul College. He had centered on agriculture on the urging of his mom, who used to develop greens to assist feed their household of 10.
It was an eventful interval. In 1979, when Mr. Aslami was two years into his research in Kabul, the Soviet Union invaded, toppling Afghanistan’s nascent republic and putting in a communist authorities. As Afghanistan descended into chaos, Mr. Aslami stated, his class of 120 college students dwindled to 15. Some fled the nation, others had been disappeared by the brutal new regime, typically taken away from the lecture corridor.
“If somebody got here to the category and browse your identify, you knew you had been gone,” he stated.
At his household’s urging, Mr. Aslami left for Iran, the place he would stay for greater than a decade, finishing up analysis and dealing with villagers to enhance cultivation methods. That was additionally the place he started to see the promise saffron held for Afghan farmers.
Saffron is harvested from a fall-blooming number of the crocus flower, a hardy perennial that grows from bulbs and might stand up to Afghanistan’s harsh local weather. The flowers, every containing three purple stigmas that may turn out to be the spice, must be picked by hand within the early morning, earlier than the blossoms open to the solar.
The vegetation bloom for less than about three weeks a 12 months, in late October and early November. After being plucked, the flowers are dried and the stigmas separated later. Harvesters should put on clear garments, gloves and masks, as a result of the slightest odors might be absorbed by the flower, lowering the standard of the spice.
It’s a labor-intensive course of, which accounts for the excessive costs the spice instructions and for the structural benefit that Afghanistan, with its abundance of low cost labor, enjoys over conventional producers resembling Spain.
Of the 4 farmers Mr. Aslami started his Afghan program with in 1998, just one, Mullah Akbar, continues to be within the enterprise. However he’s, by Afghan requirements, wildly profitable, with a whole bunch of acres of land, together with a winery and a pistachio plantation. Throughout saffron season, he places 150 women and men to work.
“He instructed me they’d one acre of land and one donkey — and so they had been three brothers,” Mr. Aslami recalled the farmer saying of his early years. “Now, he’s cultivating 35 acres of saffron — he began with 300 sq. meters. He has a house, he has an organization, he has automobiles.”
At present, about 24,000 farmers domesticate saffron throughout 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, typically in small plots, in keeping with Mr. Aslami. Herat Province, the place his message first took maintain, stays the one largest producer of Afghan saffron.
As Afghan saffron has continued to develop and unfold, Iranian officers have turn out to be nervous. Past the sanctions that complicate Iran’s attain in worldwide markets, of specific fear is the truth that Afghan saffron has constantly topped high quality exams.
This has led to a comfortable spice warfare between the 2 nations, with tens of millions of dollars doubtlessly at stake. The Afghan president lately decreed an entire ban on the importation of Iranian saffron and saffron bulbs so they don’t dilute the standard of his nation’s product. Iranian officers, in return, have complained that their saffron is often smuggled into Afghanistan, repackaged and offered overseas as Afghan.
By his work, and regardless of all of Afghanistan’s turmoil, Mr. Aslami has managed to thrive. He has three youngsters, together with a son with a doctorate in economics and a daughter with a legislation diploma. He says he’s content material, however it’s clear that he’s not solely glad.
“Perhaps I misplaced numerous alternatives in following this aim. I may have gone to Europe, turn out to be a citizen and had a lifetime of safety the place my youngsters’s future can be assured,” he stated. “However as a human being who had a aim in life, who had an concept and labored to pursue and unfold that concept, I’m 100 % content material.”
“However what I needed — what I would like,” he stated, correcting himself after a pause, “that capability has not been created.”
“We’ve not utilized the capability,” he added. “Our potential is completely huge.”
He typically travels overseas to advertise Afghan saffron. Mrs. Aslami accompanied him on considered one of his journeys, to Italy, placing on a cooking demonstration utilizing saffron in muffins and rice.
“It will get so crowded, some days I might make as many as eight muffins,” Mrs. Aslami stated.
“The Europeans like free meals much more than us Afghans,” Mr. Aslami stated with amusing.