Maddie Burakoff and Nefertari Bilal –
When Keith Alaniz was serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, he noticed a challenge for local farmers. Though they were turning around great products, he said, there was no way for them to reach buyers beyond the local markets.
Then Alaniz met Haji Yosef, a farmer who would change his life with a little red spice: saffron. Afghanistan actually produces some of the highest quality saffron in the world, Alaniz said, so by toting the expensive spice from farmers like Yosef to global markets, he realized he had the opportunity to make real change.
“If we can connect farmers with U.S. markets through the saffron, we can catalyze economic development, give them incentive to produce more and provide that economic input in the rural areas of Afghanistan,” Alaniz said. “If we can do that, we can provide jobs, and it’s just a virtuous cycle of social impact.”
That interaction inspired Alaniz to link up with three other partners who had also served in Afghanistan and launch a company to take on that mission. Rumi Spice, now four years old, works with Afghan farmers to produce and export saffron for a variety of different consumers, from high-end restaurants to grocery stores including Whole Foods.
One of the main concerns of the company, Alaniz said, is to maintain a “synergistic relationship” between Rumi Spice and the partners in Afghanistan that will ensure the collaboration is a “win-win” for both. The company has grown to employ almost 2,000 Afghan women, Alaniz said, and it pays them up to 50 percent more than the average daily wage in their own country.
Rumi Spice has found a U.S. home in a community that shares its views about socially conscious business. The spice company is a tenant at The Plant, a repurposed meatpacking building in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
Bubbly Dynamics bought the building — an intended “strip-and-rip” project — but recycled the space instead. And the company’s president, John Edel, also founded nonprofit Plant Chicago to be housed in The Plant and facilitate a sustainable business model, said Stef Funk, education associate for Plant Chicago. The nonprofit works to build a sustainable community among the businesses at The Plant, which now number 25, Funk said.
The goal is to create a “circular economy” in which waste from one business gets put to use by another.
Alaniz said Rumi Spice was one of the early tenants at The Plant, and now sends about half of its raw saffron through its warehouse there to be turned into finished product. The businesses there have a “cool community,” he said. Although Rumi Spice doesn’t produce much waste to go into the circular economy — saffron is expensive and “we try not to waste any of it,” he said — the company tries to participate in other ways. Rumi Spice collaborates with other businesses at The Plant, he said, and has created a saffron beer with Whiner Beer Company and saffron ice cream with Sacred Serve.
Beyond its commitment to minimal waste, Funk said Plant Chicago also works to be a socially conscious neighbor to its surrounding Back of the Yards community. The nonprofit provides free educational services to those in the community, she said, and consults with residents, like through the neighborhood council, before undertaking new initiatives.
“Those are the first people we talk to,” Funk said. “To make sure our intentions are aligned with the community, and that we are not just stomping around telling people how to live their lives.”
Like Plant Chicago, Alaniz said Rumi Spice makes an effort to engage with the neighborhood, and intentionally employs local workers from Back of the Yards and Pilsen. Though they’re doing “very different things,” he said the Plant Chicago community is strong because it’s built off of social change.
And, while the day-to-day commitment of running the company can be tough, Alaniz said the wider impact of his mission and the dedication of his coworkers makes it worthwhile.
“It’s not like a 40-hour-a-week job. People work all the time, and it’s because they’re doing something they believe in,” Alaniz said. “Everybody here could probably go find … a higher-paying job, but people are here because they love the mission, and it’s great being in an environment like that where everybody has a shared sense of purpose.”
Photo at top: Dried saffron flower stigmas. Rumi Spice, a company with a Chicago base at The Plant, imports the spice from Afghanistan to help farmers there expand beyond their local markets. (Photo by: Safa Daneshvar/CC BY 3.0)