Two Chicago women are on their way to making saffron the next big thing—and empowering Afghani women and farmers in the process.
Spice girls: Chicago-based Rumi cofounders Kimberly Jung and Emily Miller hold the fruits of their labor: threads of Afghani saffron, which is harvested from saffron crocus flowers and transformed into products like Rumi spice blends and new saffron gummies.
While Kimberly Jung and Emily Miller were deployed with the US Army in Afghanistan— defusing roadside bombs and performing night raids with Special Forces, respectively—they couldn’t escape the feeling that what they were doing wasn’t working. “We felt like we weren’t actually going to the root of the problem, which is economic empowerment,” explains Jung. A few years later, while getting their MBAs at Harvard, the pair decided to do something about it and started Rumi Spice, a Chicago-based business selling Afghan saffron.
“People think that only war and opium and the Taliban come from Afghanistan,” admits Jung, but the nation also produces some of the highest quality saffron in the world—and until Rumi came along, it had been nearly impossible to obtain in unadulterated form. Now, nationally renowned restaurants like The French Laundry and Le Bernardin along with Chicago favorites Dusek’s, Naha, and GreenRiver are lining up to add Rumi’s product—which this spring expands to include saffron butter, gummies, and more—to their menus. “We’re building bridges between Afghan farmers, who make up 80 percent of the population, and foodies, diners, and chefs around the world,” Jung boasts, noting that Rumi now employs 384 Afghan women to harvest their saffron, has partnered with 94 different farmers, and is already responsible for five percent of Afghanistan’s annual saffron output. Now that’s impact.