Afghan saffron sector guide points to quality as key to trigger ‘red gold’ rush
New publication spells out agenda for meeting international market requirements for the lucrative spice
Saffron is not typically the first thing that comes to mind when Afghanistan is mentioned. But the world’s most expensive spice could bring major economic and social advantages to the country – provided Afghan producers and exporters can ensure the consistent high quality that international markets demand. Spice connoisseurs elsewhere in the world have already acknowledged the potential of Afghan producers to produce high-quality, globally competitive saffron.
‘The long-run profits generated from quality saffron cultivation could be an important incentive to farmers to build an industry with genuine export potential,’ said International Trade Centre (ITC) Executive Director Arancha González. ‘The high labour requirements of saffron production offer significant employment opportunities, especially for women and youth.’
González made the remarks during her opening speech at the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, where ITC released a detailed guide, ‘Red Gold Rush: Managing quality for Afghan saffron exports’, focusing on quality-related requirements for Afghan saffron and export opportunities in China, Europe and India.
The publication, developed under the European Union-funded Advancing Afghan Trade: EU Trade Related Assistance project, complements Afghanistan’s National Export Strategy 2018–22, which sets out a course for Afghanistan to leverage international trade to drive development and job creation. The strategy treats saffron, the ‘red gold’ of the spices sector, as a priority product around which a sustainable industry could be built. The new guide spells out steps to enable Afghan saffron to develop a brand identity synonymous with consistent high quality and social and environmental sustainability.
‘The guide is one of the results of the export strategy roadmap and serves as an important tool toward developing Afghanistan’s export potential and creating an environment where entrepreneurship can grow,’ said González, who will present the publication to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and first lady Rula Ghani when they meet this week.
Saffron is susceptible to contamination and counterfeiting, and the challenge for producers, processors and exporters in Afghanistan is to comply with legal and other obligations set by regulatory authorities and purchasers in their target markets. These obligations range from food safety, plant health and traceability to packaging and labelling. Small businesses in particular struggle to navigate the quality arena. ‘Quality tends to be a fast-moving target anchored in a large array of technical regulations, standards and rapidly evolving consumer preferences,’ González noted.
Hashim Aslami, secretary of the saffron development committee at the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, said the ITC guide addresses the needs of the country’s saffron producers and ‘will help all saffron stakeholders improve their product quality according to international standards’. The Government of Afghanistan has made some progress to address issues highlighted in the guide, he added, including policy reform and opening a saffron-testing laboratory and processing centres.
To compete in international markets saffron must at a minimum meet national food safety requirements as well as ISO international standards. Niche buyers increasingly demand more – but these increased demands come with the prospect of greater price premiums. ‘We are pleased this guide includes our technical specifications’, said Mario Sidoni, CEO of Aromatica Zaffy, an Italy-based saffron brand. ‘’We stand ready to buy Afghan saffron that complies with our quality protocol.’
Companies should ‘do it right the first time, every time’ to prevent quality-related problems before they happen. Every step of the production process, from planting to harvesting to processing to export, should be carried out with quality in mind. Testing and certification, the end game in compliance, will reassure buyers that Afghan saffron meets quality standards, opening the door to new markets.
According to Ludovica Ghizzoni, an ITC quality adviser who led the development of the saffron guide, the publication’s recommendations would need to be backed up with training of all actors along the saffron value chain in Afghanistan. ‘ITC will pursue its efforts to build a conducive trade support environment in line with the national export strategy, which has identified quality as a means to bring change and boost prosperity in Afghanistan,’ she said.