Mohammad Salehi sells saffron to more than 100 professional chefs and an increasing number of home cooks, but he’s hesitant to call Heray Spice — the company he founded in Chicago in 2017 — a business. To be sure, Heray is a business, and a fast-growing one at that, but Salehi’s vision reaches beyond turning a profit or introducing Americans to some of the best saffron in the world. The 27-year-old wants his customers to understand just what they’re supporting when they buy a tiny glowing jar of this precious spice.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and Salehi is on a mission to prove to the farmers he works with in Afghanistan that growing it is a meaningful and profitable alternative to producing opium. He pays farmers significantly more for the crops they harvest than most buyers, and he invests 10 percent of Heray’s net income into educational nonprofits in Herat, where he was born. Salehi, who has a master’s degree in business information technology, wants children growing up in Afghanistan to have access to the same level of education his family ensured he received. He hopes that as his young company grows and expands to offer other spices, as well as dried fruits, he can shift the way Afghanistan is viewed by so many outsiders. Heray is a spice business, but in many ways selling saffron is just a means to an end for Salehi, a way to enrich the lives of farming families like the one he grew up in, create opportunity for the children in his home city, and introduce Americans to an Afghanistan where fields of saffron paint the landscape beautiful shades of purple and pink.
Eater: What does a typical day look like for you?
Mohammad Salehi: In Afghanistan, I have an office in Herat and spend most of my time meeting with farmers. We have to recruit 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 caused them not to produce as much crop.
When I’m in the U.S., I also have a part-time job. Because of COVID-19, I have to work as a contractor, a back-end engineer, so I can make a little bit of money so we can survive. And in the U.S., it’s a lot of meetings with chefs. I go to restaurants and bring them some saffron. Mostly, I deliver my own orders when I’m in Chicago; I want to meet the chefs. I have a team of two people making sure the packaging and the deliveries are fine. It’s a lot of work. It’s a startup life. Some days, you have to clean your whole warehouse. Sometimes it’s packaging. You do everything. It’s not like I am the boss so I don’t do this. I do packaging, delivery, cleaning, anything required. You have to do it.
You grew up in farming but then did work as a translator for the U.S. Army. Then you came back to farming. What brought you back?
In farming culture in Afghanistan, a lot of farmers are not thinking much about how they can make money, how they can make it a business. It’s more a lifestyle. When I was in high school, my family invested a lot of time in me learning English. When I graduated, I wanted to explore another culture, so I found a job as a linguist with the U.S. Army. I knew farming, and I loved to do that, but I also wanted to see what the world had to offer. I wanted to help more.
The problem is a lot of these farmers are the people who are getting the least out of the product. They are selling the product to distributors — to corporations like Whole Foods or in Afghanistan, to big local markets — with a very cheap price. So for me to be able to help farmers, I have to get the saffron to the people. To do all this, I needed to have the knowledge, I needed to have the culture, I needed to know the language. That is why for three or four years, I worked with the U.S. Army, I got a degree, I learned business. So now I have a connection between the two worlds.
When you were first building this business, why did you choose saffron, versus any other crop that grows readily in Afghanistan?
Based on international standards, Afghanistan produces the world’s best saffron. And in Afghanistan, crops like chickpeas, wheat, and corn cannot compete with opium. The regions under the Taliban are cultivating drugs like crazy, and if we wanted to compete, the crops needed to make us the same amount of net income as opium — and that’s almost impossible. We had to find a way we could create a bit of profit. Saffron doesn’t produce much in the first year, but when you come to the second, third, and fourth years, saffron produces three to five times more money than opium. In contrast, poppy seeds — or opium — are an annual cultivation. It needs more care each year, and the production size is linear, meaning that it does not multiply itself annually. With saffron, every year the bulbs multiply and make new offspring. Poppy might produce more money in the first year, but in the long-term, saffron will produce more. Now we can give incentives for farmers: If you cultivate saffron, not only can you help put the world in a better place, but also you’ll make more money for yourself.
I don’t want my country to be famous for opium; that is a big driver for me. The other reason I chose saffron is that my family chose to cultivate it starting in 2008. Before that, we were cultivating potatoes and corn, and we found profit in farming saffron.
What is your business model right now?
My main goal is to help the farming community in Afghanistan cultivate saffron and help them make a good living off it. By good living, I mean not just survival mode, but to be able to educate your children, to educate your daughters, your sons, send them to school. The other aspect of the business is that we are trying to help our international partners, Americans as well as people around the globe, by providing a good product that’s pure, natural, and essentially organic. We achieve all this through two steps. We’re educating farmers on how to clean the saffron in a way that is acceptable to the Western world: It has to be naturally heated or naturally dried, without any microbiological viruses, not produced in a dirty environment. In the U.S. market, we are educating chefs: If you put fake saffron into water, it’s going to have 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 transform from wholesale — selling to restaurants — to online retail business, selling direct to customers. We now focus a lot on the public. It was a challenging year, but I don’t know if that’s the right word because I don’t want to give it a negative connotation. It was an opportunity full of challenges. But it created transformative thinking.
How are you making change in the food world?
I am helping people who need the most help. I am helping farmers. No one listened to their voice; they were making the least amount of money. But now we are changing that. We’re paying them more, we are educating them, we are empowering them. And I’m helping a community of chefs in America to not waste their money on a product that they don’t know the source of. We are connecting these two communities. There was a big distance between them — not a lot of chefs knew where their saffron came from — and I wanted to fill that gap. When I started the business, I could not imagine a day when I’d be helping more than 120 chefs and working with distributors in five different states. I’m still not thinking about Heray as a business. Helping more became 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 goes a long way for Afghani farmers and pushes them toward a brighter future.
Fazl Ahmad is a photographer and graphic designer based in Herat, Afghanistan.