Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Veteran Kimberly Jung and Rumi Spice

Can you imagine these fields of beautiful saffron crocuses were once filled with opium poppies, grown to fill the coffers of Taliban terrorists?

Now the seeds of these bright-colored flowers represent the power of change. And when you learn about the efforts of a special team of three army veterans and a lawyer working in Kabul for the Afghan Rural Enterprise Development Program (AREDP), you’ll never underestimate the power of the human heart.

Kimberly Jung is one of these special veterans that WomanScape salutes as a global woman of courage. Her efforts echo the women featured in Yara Zgheib’s monthly Her Way Series. Jung’s determination to bring peace to a region plagued by a tumultuous history of political unrest and economic instability inspires us to believe in the impossible.

WomanScape piggybacked off the idea to recognize Jung when the International Women’s Associates (IWA) celebrated her at their annual Woman Extraordinaire Award Luncheon this past week at Chicago’s Drake Hotel. IWA in itself is a collective force like Jung, inspiring women to advocate for the global welfare of women and children; it does so under the leadership of Doe Thornburg, the nonagenarian leader of this Chicago-based group.

Kimberly Jung’s Impetus for Change

Jung’s first experience in Afghanistan began as a U.S. army engineer assigned to disarm roadside bombs in the Wardak and Ghazni provinces of Afghanistan in 2010-2011. Under the 2009 Obama’s plan, the United States was focused on rebuilding urban centers and destroying the opium supply routes of for the Taliban.

When Jung joined the reconstruction teams charged with empowering Afghan women in the villages, she fell in love with its people.  As a graduate of West Point Military Academy and a mechanical engineer, Jung returned to Harvard to earn a business degree. This provided her with the tools to help found Rumi Spice in 2014. (Photo of Jung below is taken from the Rumi Spice website)

Rumi Spice imports exceptionally high quality saffron from Afghanistan, employing over 90 farmers and more than 380 women. The saffron, also known as red gold and the queen of the spices, is one of the most prized spices in the world because its harvest must be handpicked. More than 150,000 flowers are needed to produce an ounce of Afghan saffron, which can cost upwards of $2,500-3,000 U.S. dollars per ounce.

A quick tour around the Rumi Spice website reveals a colorful explosion of tantalizing recipes, a variety of spice blends, gift sets and wholesale opportunities. Michelin star restaurants are excited about the saffron and according to a recent Bon Appetit article in October of 2017,  “Ana Sortun, chef-owner of Middle Eastern-inspired restaurants Oleana and Sarma in Cambridge, MA, says you won’t find better saffron than Rumi (Daniel Boulud is also a fan).”

Saffron – Sustainable Prosperity

Saffron is widely used in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and its complex flavor is used in both sweet and savory dishes like saffron orange cupcakes and paella. Rumi Spice has quickly become a leading supplier of this luxury spice because of the special relationships it has established with farmers, local governments and international supply chain carriers. Its increased demand and presence in the world will create sustainable economic development in Afghanistan.

Kimberly Jung believed in the goodness of the Afghan people and the potential for this life-giving spice. The company name she and her co-founders picked was a natural fit with the its namesake, the famous 13th century Persian poet Rumi. So it’s no surprise the Rumi Spice tagline aims to “cultivate peace with the world’s finest saffron.”

Jung and her business team hope this revolutionary road to peace-building echoes Rumi’s words:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.

Changing Perceptions About Afghanistan

Sharing the beauty of Afghanistan’s ideal climate and landscape for growing saffron may help to reframe Western perspectives about this mountainous region in Asia. In an area where 90% of the world’s heroin supply was once grown, people may still have a sour taste in their mouth about a land where people have died as a result of war. This is doubled by the ongoing conflict and many unsuccessful and repeated attempts to change the course of politics.

Jung recognizes the many challenges that lay ahead for Rumi Spice. An online article in the Military Officers Association of America website speaks to the young company’s need to address “poor transportation, tedious bureaucracy, illiteracy, unreliable payment methods, and lack of contract law enforcement.” But given Rumi Spice’s early success, they seem well on their way to building sustainable economic prosperity and renewed hope for the Afghan people.

No matter how you feel politically, Jung and the founders Rumi Spice help us to see the best in our human condition.  When I think of movies like Charlie Wilson’s War (starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts) or books like The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini) which share stories about the trials of war, what remains true are the simple stories of redemption. Kimberly Jung is one of these special lights in the desert. She is building “the foundation for peace, one flower at a time.”

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