Afghanistan’s Saffron Diplomacy

Digging Deeper:

Afghanistan’s society and economy are witnessing some cumulative, yet major transformations pertaining to the ever-amplifying active participation of youth in the social, cultural, and political realms and its surging trade and commerce, catering to domestic as well as international markets. Although the contesting element of aspiring demographic dividends vis-à-vis security challenges in the country is aptly acknowledged internationally, there are some other vital changes that have occurred that have attracted little or no attention in the world, but have the potential to reshape, revamp, and reorient Afghanistan’s future economic, social, and security roadmap. As the country is already embarking on further propping up its efforts to make way for a stable and sustainable peace, there are some developments worth considering that can only strengthen and solidify such undertakings. A couple of days back, the International Taste Institute— a Belgium-based institute for the evaluation and certification of consumer foods and beverages— re-crowned Afghan Saffron at the top spot globally for the eighth consecutive year. This fact alone makes it worth exploring the impact of saffron cultivation in the country, and its prospects.

Precursor to Prosperity:

2020, the year plagued by medical exigencies amid the coronavirus pandemic, seriously impacted the global economy, and no nation could stand as an exception. Yet, the beginning of this year reaffirmed the positive outlook for Afghan saffron growers. First, Afghanistan retained its feat of producing the best-quality and tasting saffron for the eighth year in a row. Secondly, as more and more provinces started adopting saffron cultivation in the country, the notorious menace of poppy cultivation, by contrast, started reducing. By December 2019, 23 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan that had previously grown poppies started saffron cultivation. Third, the production of saffron is lucrative and even more remunerative in the domestic and global market as compared to opium. Fourth, Afghanistan, with its 12.8% market share in the global exports, holds third position, after Iran and India, in producing saffron, which has a potential to pull millions out of poverty and fetch millions of dollars of income for farmers, boosting the overall economy of Afghanistan in a big way.

Cradle of Hope:

Commonly known as the “Red Gold” of Afghanistan, saffron production in Afghanistan has multiplied manifold in the last few years. In 2018, its total global export was valued at $21.25 million, and in 2019, it reached $28.94 million. Out of this, $15 million and $17 million worth of saffron was exported exclusively to India in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Being one of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron invariably could help the country bring home the bacon economically and socially. It’s important to note here that saffron can effectively thwart the direct and indirect impact of opium production in the country, thereby checking the security threats that arise out of poppy cultivation. It is for this reason that saffron is uniquely positioned to be a sustainable alternative to poppy in the country. Furthermore, the saffron plant is drought-resistant and requires very little water. This is one of the biggest advantages of growing saffron in Afghanistan, where droughts are common. In addition, as most crops require expanses of land for their cultivation or farming, saffron, in contrast, does not require much land to grow the crop, making it an accessible enterprise for millions of farmers in the country.

For precisely such reasons, the Afghanistan National Export Strategy 2018–2022 has prioritized saffron development. To complement this, the International Trade Centre (ITC) is also delivering training as part of the European Union-funded Advancing Afghan Exports Programme and ITC’s own Ethical Food and Fashion Initiative in Afghanistan. The importance of saffron is well recognized in the top echelons of the Afghan administration and is well reflected in the policies put out for its development. The potential benefits of promoting Afghan saffron could very well outweigh the explicit and probable benefits for the farming sector.

Saffron Diplomacy

Since 2001, this product has been making its way to diplomatic protocols worldwide.

When I joined the Afghan Embassy in India as the Chargé d’Affaires, I launched an initiative called “Saffron Tea with the Afghan Embassy”, where I invited various traders, journalists, economic experts and friends of Afghanistan to a cup of saffron to promote this spice.

Saffron diplomacy is a shining example of Afghanistan’s display of diplomatic strength with Afghan diplomats making sure the spice’s role as a soft power in introducing the image of a new Afghanistan.

A Way Forward:

Despite all the trials and tribulations that Afghan farmers have been confronted with in the past few decades, including various wars and natural disasters, the saffron production industry continued to hold promise. Today, it is poised to be the beacon of hope for a prosperous future, having the potential to make millions of farmers self-reliant, give the economy a big boost, and usher riches to a large rural population, which is about 74 percent of the country’s population.

In order to support the cultivation and export of this national treasure, HE President Ashraf Ghani banned the import of low quality saffron from the world, which led to the doubling of the price of Afghan saffron in national and international markets.

President Ghani has hailed it as a hallmark of Afghanistan which could change the country’s image internationally. Let the delicate flavour and fiery color of this red gold continue seasoning dishes from French bouillabaisse to Italian risotto to Spanish paella and Indian curries and desserts.

About the author:

Author is the Chargé d’ Affaires of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to India. He is also a Co-Chairperson of the India-Afghanistan Foundation (IAF). Mr. Qadiry is an internationally recognized award-winning journalist with 18 years of experiences across the various spheres of management, media and public policy development. Tahir Qadiry holds a Master’s Degree in Global Governance and International Public Policy from the University of London, UK. He is an incumbent Ph.D. scholar from OP Jindal Global University, India, undertaking a comprehensive research project on scrutinizing Afghanistan’s relations with India in the context of regional powers.