Mohammad Salehi sells saffron to more than 100 professional chefs and an increasing number of home cooks, but hesitates to call Heray Spice – the company he founded in Chicago in 2017 – a company. Of course, Heray is a business, and a fast growing one, but Salehi’s vision is beyond making a profit or introducing Americans to one of the best saffron in the world. The 27-year-old wants his customers to understand what they are supporting when they buy a tiny glowing jar of this precious spice.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and Salehi’s mission is to prove to the farmers he works with in Afghanistan that growing it is a sensible and profitable alternative to making opium. He pays farmers far more than most buyers for the harvest and invests 10 percent of Heray’s net income in non-profit educational institutions in Herat, where he was born. Salehi, who has a masters degree in business information technology, wants children growing up in Afghanistan to have access to the same level of education that his family received for him. He hopes that as his young company grows and expands to offer other spices as well as dried fruits, it can transform the way so many outsiders see Afghanistan about Afghanistan. Heray is A spice shop, but in many ways selling saffron for Salehi is just a means to an end, a way to enrich the lives of farming families like the one he grew up in, create opportunities for the children in his hometown and Americans imagine in Afghanistan, where saffron fields paint the landscape with beautiful purple and pink tones.
Esser: What does a typical day look like for you?
Mohammad Salehi: In Afghanistan, I have an office in Herat and spend most of the time meeting with farmers. We have to hire new farmers and some days we have training for farmers so they know what to do differently for the coming year. For example, last year the water was good, but they gave too much water for a few acres of land, which meant they didn’t produce that much crop.
When I’m in the US, I also have a part-time job. Due to COVID-19, I have to work as a contractor, as a back-end engineer, so I can make some money so we can survive. And in the US there are a lot of meetings with chefs. I go to restaurants and bring them saffron. Most of the time I deliver my own orders when in Chicago; I want to meet the cooks. I have a team of two people who make sure that the packaging and deliveries are in order. It is much work. It’s a startup life. Some days you need to clean your entire warehouse. Sometimes it’s packaging. You do everything. It’s not like I’m the boss so I don’t do this. I do packaging, delivery, cleaning, everything that is needed. You have to do it.
You grew up in agriculture but then worked as a translator for the US Army. Then you returned to agriculture. What brought you back
In the farming culture in Afghanistan, a lot of farmers don’t think much about how to make money, how to turn it into a business. It’s more of a lifestyle. When I was in high school, my family spent a lot of time learning English. When I graduated, I wanted to explore a different culture, so I found a job as a linguist with the US Army. I knew about farming and I loved doing it, but I also wanted to see what the world had to offer. I wanted to help more.
The problem is that many of these farmers are the people who get the least out of the product. They sell the product to traders – to companies like Whole Foods or, in Afghanistan, to large local markets – at a very affordable price. So that I can help the farmers, I have to bring the saffron to the people. To do all of this, I had to have the knowledge, I had to have the culture, I had to know the language. So I worked in the US Army for three or four years, graduated, and studied business. Now I have a connection between the two worlds.
When you first started this business, why did you choose saffron compared to other plants that are easy to grow in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan produces the best saffron in the world according to international standards. And in Afghanistan, crops like chickpeas, wheat and corn cannot compete with opium. The regions under the Taliban grow drugs like crazy, and if we were to compete we had to harvest the same net income as opium – and that’s almost impossible. We had to find a way to make a little profit. Saffron doesn’t produce much in the first year, but by the second, third, and fourth years, saffron makes three to five times more money than opium. In contrast, poppy seeds – or opium – are grown annually. It takes more care every year and the production size is linear, which means it does not increase annually. With saffron, the onions multiply every year and produce new offspring. Poppy could produce more money in the first year, but saffron will produce more in the long run. Now we can incentivize farmers: when you grow saffron, you can not only help bring the world to a better place, but you can also make more money for yourself.
I don’t want my country to be famous for opium. That’s a big driver for me. The other reason I chose saffron is because my family decided to start growing it in 2008. Before that, we grew potatoes and corn, and we made a profit from growing saffron.
What is your current business model?
My main goal is to help the farming community in Afghanistan grow saffron and help them make a good living from it. By good life, I mean not just survival mode, but the ability to raise your children, raise your daughters and sons, and send them to school. The other aspect of doing business is that we try to help our international partners, Americans and people around the world, by offering a good product that is pure, natural, and essentially organic. We can do all of this in two steps. We teach farmers how to clean the saffron in a way that is acceptable to the western world: it needs to be heated naturally or naturally dried, without microbiological viruses that are not produced in a dirty environment. In the US market, we train chefs: if you put fake saffron in water, it has a chemical taste. It’s food coloring plus safflower or corn silk. It’s not saffron.
Fill in the blank: The past year and a half has been _____.
A transformative year. Because we had to move from wholesale – selling to restaurants – to online retailing and selling directly to customers. We are very focused on the public now. It’s been a challenging year, but I don’t know if that’s the right word because I don’t want to connote it negatively. It was an opportunity full of challenges. But it created transformative thinking.
How are you changing the food world?
I help people who need help the most. I help farmers. Nobody listened to her voice; They made the least money. But now we’re changing that. We pay them more, we train them, we strengthen them. And I’m helping a community of chefs in America not to waste their money on a product they don’t know the source of. We connect these two communities. There was a huge gap between them – not many cooks knew where their saffron was coming from – and I wanted to fill this g. When I first started in the business, I couldn’t imagine a day helping 120+ cooks and working with dealers in five different states. I still don’t think of Heray as a business. Helping more has become a business model for me.
How can readers support your work?
Simply put, we need more demand. Every sale is good for a community of 30 farmers. Very little matters much to Afghan farmers and drives them towards a better future.
Fazl Ahmad is a photographer and designer based in Herat, Afghanistan.