Mohammad Salehi sells saffron to greater than 100 skilled cooks and an growing variety of house cooks, however he’s hesitant to name Heray Spice — the corporate he based in Chicago in 2017 — a enterprise. To make certain, Heray is a enterprise, and a fast-growing one at that, however Salehi’s imaginative and prescient reaches past turning a revenue or introducing People to a few of the greatest saffron on the earth. The 27-year-old needs his clients to know simply what they’re supporting after they purchase a tiny glowing jar of this valuable spice.
Saffron is the world’s most costly spice, and Salehi is on a mission to show to the farmers he works with in Afghanistan that rising it’s a significant and worthwhile different to producing opium. He pays farmers considerably extra for the crops they harvest than most patrons, and he invests 10 p.c of Heray’s web revenue into academic nonprofits in Herat, the place he was born. Salehi, who has a grasp’s diploma in enterprise data expertise, needs kids rising up in Afghanistan to have entry to the identical degree of schooling his household ensured he obtained. He hopes that as his younger firm grows and expands to supply different spices, in addition to dried fruits, he can shift the way in which Afghanistan is considered by so many outsiders. Heray is a spice enterprise, however in some ways promoting saffron is only a means to an finish for Salehi, a strategy to enrich the lives of farming households just like the one he grew up in, create alternative for the kids in his house metropolis, and introduce People to an Afghanistan the place fields of saffron paint the panorama stunning shades of purple and pink.
Eater: What does a typical day seem like for you?
Mohammad Salehi: In Afghanistan, I’ve an workplace in Herat and spend most of my time assembly with farmers. We now have to recruit new farmers, and a few days we have now coaching for farmers so that they know what to do otherwise for the approaching yr. For instance, final yr, the water was good however they gave an excessive amount of water for just a few acres of land, which triggered them to not produce as a lot crop.
After I’m within the U.S., I even have a part-time job. Due to COVID-19, I’ve to work as a contractor, a back-end engineer, so I could make somewhat bit of cash so we are able to survive. And within the U.S., it’s plenty of conferences with cooks. I am going to eating places and produce them some saffron. Largely, I ship my very own orders once I’m in Chicago; I wish to meet the cooks. I’ve a group of two folks ensuring the packaging and the deliveries are fantastic. It’s plenty of work. It’s a startup life. Some days, it’s a must to clear your entire warehouse. Typically it’s packaging. You do all the things. It’s not like I’m the boss so I don’t do that. I do packaging, supply, cleansing, something required. You must do it.
You grew up in farming however then did work as a translator for the U.S. Military. Then you definitely got here again to farming. What introduced you again?
In farming tradition in Afghanistan, plenty of farmers aren’t considering a lot about how they’ll make cash, how they’ll make it a enterprise. It’s extra a way of life. After I was in highschool, my household invested plenty of time in me studying English. After I graduated, I needed to discover one other tradition, so I discovered a job as a linguist with the U.S. Military. I knew farming, and I beloved to do this, however I additionally needed to see what the world needed to supply. I needed to assist extra.
The issue is plenty of these farmers are the people who find themselves getting the least out of the product. They’re promoting the product to distributors — to companies like Complete Meals or in Afghanistan, to large native markets — with a really low cost value. So for me to have the ability to assist farmers, I’ve to get the saffron to the folks. To do all this, I wanted to have the data, I wanted to have the tradition, I wanted to know the language. That’s the reason for 3 or 4 years, I labored with the U.S. Military, I received a level, I discovered enterprise. So now I’ve a connection between the 2 worlds.
Once you had been first constructing this enterprise, why did you select saffron, versus another crop that grows readily in Afghanistan?
Primarily based on worldwide requirements, Afghanistan produces the world’s greatest saffron. And in Afghanistan, crops like chickpeas, wheat, and corn can’t compete with opium. The areas below the Taliban are cultivating medication like loopy, and if we needed to compete, the crops wanted to make us the identical quantity of web revenue as opium — and that’s virtually not possible. We needed to discover a means we might create a little bit of revenue. Saffron doesn’t produce a lot within the first yr, however while you come to the second, third, and fourth years, saffron produces three to 5 occasions extra money than opium. In distinction, poppy seeds — or opium — are an annual cultivation. It wants extra care annually, and the manufacturing dimension is linear, that means that it doesn’t multiply itself yearly. With saffron, yearly the bulbs multiply and make new offspring. Poppy would possibly produce extra money within the first yr, however within the long-term, saffron will produce extra. Now we may give incentives for farmers: In the event you domesticate saffron, not solely are you able to assist put the world in a greater place, but in addition you’ll make more cash for your self.
I don’t need my nation to be well-known for opium; that could be a large driver for me. The opposite cause I selected saffron is that my household selected to domesticate it beginning in 2008. Earlier than that, we had been cultivating potatoes and corn, and we discovered revenue in farming saffron.
What’s your corporation mannequin proper now?
My predominant purpose is to assist the farming group in Afghanistan domesticate saffron and assist them make a superb residing off it. By good residing, I imply not simply survival mode, however to have the ability to educate your kids, to coach your daughters, your sons, ship them to high school. The opposite facet of the enterprise is that we are attempting to assist our worldwide companions, People in addition to folks across the globe, by offering a superb product that’s pure, pure, and basically natural. We obtain all this by two steps. We’re educating farmers on the right way to clear the saffron in a means that’s acceptable to the Western world: It must be naturally heated or naturally dried, with none microbiological viruses, not produced in a unclean atmosphere. Within the U.S. market, we’re educating cooks: In the event you put faux saffron into water, it’s going to have a chemical style. It’s meals coloring plus safflower or corn silk. It’s not saffron.
Fill within the clean: The previous yr and a half has been _____.
A transformative yr. As a result of we needed to remodel from wholesale — promoting to eating places — to on-line retail enterprise, promoting direct to clients. We now focus lots on the general public. It was a difficult yr, however I don’t know if that’s the best phrase as a result of I don’t wish to give it a detrimental connotation. It was a chance stuffed with challenges. However it created transformative considering.
How are you making change within the meals world?
I’m serving to individuals who want essentially the most assist. I’m serving to farmers. Nobody listened to their voice; they had been making the least sum of money. However now we’re altering that. We’re paying them extra, we’re educating them, we’re empowering them. And I’m serving to a group of cooks in America to not waste their cash on a product that they don’t know the supply of. We’re connecting these two communities. There was an enormous distance between them — not plenty of cooks knew the place their saffron got here from — and I needed to fill that hole. After I began the enterprise, I couldn’t think about a day once I’d be serving to greater than 120 cooks and dealing with distributors in 5 completely different states. I’m nonetheless not eager about Heray as a enterprise. Serving to extra grew to become a enterprise mannequin for me.
How can readers help your work?
Merely put, we’d like extra demand. Every sale is sweet for a group of 30 farmers. Little or no goes a great distance for Afghani farmers and pushes them towards a brighter future.
Fazl Ahmad is a photographer and graphic designer primarily based in Herat, Afghanistan.