KABUL, Afghanistan — In the early days of Taliban control in the 1990s, a low-paid agricultural worker began traveling from village to village in Afghanistan’s west with an unlikely pitch to farmers: switch from their traditional wheat crop and focus on saffron, the notoriously labor-intensive spice.
To many people, including some of the man’s own bosses at a Danish aid organization, the proposal was misdirected, maybe even foolish, and certainly well above his $50-a-month pay grade. Afghanistan was in the midst of a brutal drought with famine threatening. Keeping Afghans fed was the priority.
But the aid worker, Hashim Aslami, was adamant, arguing to farmers and his bosses alike that even though harvesting the spice can be tricky and time consuming, the financial returns can be substantial: Known as “red gold,” saffron can sell for as much as $700 a pound on the local market and much more elsewhere. Saffron could even be an economically competitive substitute for the opium poppy, Mr. Aslami argued, though he conceded it is not suitable for all areas of the country.
He eventually convinced the higher-ups, winning a $100 grant to begin a pilot program on four farms in Herat Province.
Two decades later, Mr. Aslami, a soft-spoken, 63-year-old with what remains of his hair dyed jet black, is one of the proud visionaries of a rare success story: a $25 million export industry that continues to grow despite the country’s seemingly endless war. Afghanistan is now the third-largest saffron producer in the world, behind Iran and India.
Mr. Aslami has risen to become the government’s top adviser in the flourishing saffron sector, which he says is growing by about 20 percent a year. As someone who apparently sees work as the ultimate purpose in life, his waking hours are spent immersed in saffron, in meetings, in reading, in everyday conversation.
“Except when I am asleep, the rest of the time is all on saffron,” Mr. Aslami said with a smile, during an interview at his small apartment above a bank in central Kabul, the Afghan capital. His wife of 30 years, Talat Aslami, sat beside him.
Even his dreams, he said, have been infiltrated by the spice.
“I once dreamed that all my wishes had been achieved,” he said, “that we were producing 50 percent of the world’s saffron and all those things. And what was I going to do now?”
“All of a sudden, that shook me awake,” he said, laughing.
At the moment, that dream is far from being realized. Afghan saffron accounts for only about 4 percent of global production. Of the roughly 430 tons of saffron produced last year, 16 came from Afghanistan, Mr. Aslami said. Most of it, 90 percent, came from Iran, which is where he first learned about the spice.
He arrived there as a refugee in 1981, fresh from earning a degree in agriculture at Kabul University. He had focused on agriculture at the urging of his mother, who used to grow vegetables to help feed their family of 10.
It was an eventful period. In 1979, when Mr. Aslami was two years into his studies in Kabul, the Soviet Union invaded, toppling Afghanistan’s nascent republic and installing a communist government. As Afghanistan descended into chaos, Mr. Aslami said, his class of 120 students dwindled to 15. Some fled the country, others were disappeared by the brutal new regime, often taken away from the lecture hall.
“If someone came to the class and read your name, you knew you were gone,” he said.
At his family’s urging, Mr. Aslami left for Iran, where he would remain for more than a decade, carrying out research and working with villagers to improve cultivation techniques. That was also where he began to see the promise saffron held for Afghan farmers.
Saffron is harvested from a fall-blooming variety of the crocus flower, a hardy perennial that grows from bulbs and can withstand Afghanistan’s harsh climate. The flowers, each containing three red stigmas that will become the spice, have to be picked by hand in the early morning, before the blossoms open to the sun.
The plants bloom for only about three weeks a year, in late October and early November. After being plucked, the flowers are dried and the stigmas separated later. Harvesters must wear clean clothes, gloves and masks, because the slightest odors can be absorbed by the flower, reducing the quality of the spice.
It is a labor-intensive process, which accounts for the high prices the spice commands and for the structural advantage that Afghanistan, with its abundance of cheap labor, enjoys over traditional producers such as Spain.
Of the four farmers Mr. Aslami began his Afghan program with in 1998, only one, Mullah Akbar, is still in the business. But he is, by Afghan standards, wildly successful, with hundreds of acres of land, including a vineyard and a pistachio plantation. During saffron season, he puts 150 men and women to work.
“He told me they had one acre of land and one donkey — and they were three brothers,” Mr. Aslami recalled the farmer saying of his early years. “Now, he is cultivating 35 acres of saffron — he started with 300 square meters. He has a home, he has a company, he has cars.”
Currently, about 24,000 farmers cultivate saffron across 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, often in small plots, according to Mr. Aslami. Herat Province, where his message first took hold, remains the single largest producer of Afghan saffron.
As Afghan saffron has continued to grow and spread, Iranian officials have become nervous. Beyond the sanctions that complicate Iran’s reach in international markets, of particular worry is the fact that Afghan saffron has consistently topped quality tests.
This has led to a soft spice war between the two countries, with millions of dollars potentially at stake. The Afghan president recently decreed a complete ban on the importation of Iranian saffron and saffron bulbs so they do not dilute the quality of his country’s product. Iranian officials, in return, have complained that their saffron is frequently smuggled into Afghanistan, repackaged and sold abroad as Afghan.
Through his work, and despite all of Afghanistan’s turmoil, Mr. Aslami has managed to thrive. He has three children, including a son with a doctorate in economics and a daughter with a law degree. He says he is content, but it is clear that he is not entirely satisfied.
“Maybe I lost a lot of opportunities in following this goal. I could have gone to Europe, become a citizen and had a life of security where my children’s future would be guaranteed,” he said. “But as a human being who had a goal in life, who had an idea and worked to pursue and spread that idea, I am 100 percent content.”
“But what I wanted — what I want,” he said, correcting himself after a pause, “that capacity has not been created.”
“We have not utilized the capacity,” he added. “Our potential is absolutely vast.”
He often travels abroad to promote Afghan saffron. Mrs. Aslami accompanied him on one of his trips, to Italy, putting on a cooking demonstration using saffron in cakes and rice.
“It would get so crowded, some days I would make as many as eight cakes,” Mrs. Aslami said.
“The Europeans like free food even more than us Afghans,” Mr. Aslami said with a laugh.