This Farming Startup Cultivates Peace in Conflict Zones Through Trade

Natalie Holmes

Image via iStock

Gernot Würtenberger and Salem El-Mogaddedi gazed across rows of violet saffron unfurling like a carpet beside the small village of Shakiban in Afghanistan’s Herat province. It was harvest season in the fertile river valley, and local women gathered saffron among fields that not so long ago yielded poppies to supply the world’s insatiable demand for opium.

Spellbound by the vivid, fragrant scene, the pair made a decision that would transform their lives—and send ripples of change through the community. Sensing the potential for collaboration with the local farmers, they purchased four pounds (two kilograms) of saffron from the Shura of Shakiban. (The Shura is a local council functioning as a producer cooperative and is the country’s first independent council exclusively for women.)

“We brought the saffron back in our hand luggage with the idea we could sell it in Germany,” says Würtenberger. “At that point, we had no clue if there was even a market.” But people were interested in both the product and the story behind it, and Conflictfood was born in the fall of 2015. The saffron is sold by the gram via an online shop and packaged as a “peace kit,” complete with a set of recipe cards and a “Voices of Afghanistan” booklet that tells firsthand stories about the lives of the producers, their families, and their community.

From that early success, a much larger vision grew.

Building peace, one farmer at a time

After their first collaboration, Würtenberger and El-Mogaddedi wanted to look for ways to expand their mission and help other war-torn communities. The first objective was to make sure partnerships were fair. Instead of seeking the lowest possible bid, the duo simply asks farmers to name their price for bulk orders, and then they work from there to set the purchase cost in Europe, which tends to be around 30 percent higher than market rates. (Currently, Conflictfood products are available only to European consumers.) That 30 percent markup could be a barrier to some consumers, but the duo remains committed to fair pricing for the farmers. They plan long-term partnerships with producers and build relationships on mutual trust. “We seal our agreements with a handshake and make sure we never take too much produce away from the local market,” Würtenberger explains.

Within a few months of its founding, Conflictfood was awarded the Next Organic Startup Award in recognition of the company’s social and ecological impact. Würtenberger and El-Mogaddedi have since travelled to a different region each year, seeking out products farmed in regions ravaged by war and reselling them online as a way to provide financial security and to help build resilience among vulnerable producer communities.

In 2017, they set their sights on Palestine. “To us, the Middle East conflict is a synonym for conflict overall and is a situation close to our hearts,” says Würtenberger. The pair were already in contact with a Christian cleric based in Bethlehem, who connected them to local farmers, nonprofit organizations, and political activists. They discovered a farmer’s cooperative cultivating a crop, little-known in the Western world, called freekeh, from the northern part of the West Bank. A protein-rich grain harvested unripe then fire-roasted to achieve a nutty flavor, the product was an instant hit with the company’s customers.

As Conflictfood gained a reputation, NGOs and development organizations began reaching out with requests to trade with producers around the world. “People are attracted to our work—they see we’re doing something different, not charity,” says Würtenberger.

They were approached by a German nonprofit, Welthungerhilfe, about working with tea producers in Myanmar, site of the world’s longest-running civil war. High in the mountains of the country’s remote North Shan region, farmers cultivate organic black and green tea in precarious areas that regularly spill over into violence and displace residents.

Changing the narrative

But the impact on producer countries goes beyond money. “We don’t just sell the product—we sell the whole story behind it,” says Würtenberger. One of Conflictfood’s main goals is to change narratives that reduce war-torn communities to negative stereotypes. “Half of our social impact happens right here in Germany, in changing people’s perceptions,” he continues. “We often hear things like ‘these people are helpless’, or ‘passive,’ or ‘aggressive,’ for example. Maybe it’s true, maybe not—the point is there’s much more to a place and its people [besides the violence happening there]. We want to tear down the walls in people’s minds.” Selling the output of a different culture is one way to bridge the difference.

The booklet that comes as part of the peace kit and the company’s blog are instrumental in the storytelling side of its social impact. Rather than focus on the challenges the communities face, the booklet aims to educate customers about the culture and history of the producers’ community. Right now, the bulk of business comes from the German-speaking market; however, the “Voices of” booklets are available in English, in line with the company’s goal of expanding its product line to English-speaking nations.

What’s more, the company hosts regular events in Germany, where it is headquartered, celebrating producer countries and educating consumers about the rich culture of so-called conflict zones. In October 2018, for example, its Klub Kabul festival attracted more than 5,000 visitors with a two-day lineup of culinary workshops, readings, art exhibitions, music performances, and discussions, all led by Afghan people or those with deep connections to the country. The event also featured a video concert performed by young musicians and live-streamed directly from Afghanistan. Earlier in the year, at a separate daylong symposium, the organization hosted a discussion on Myanmar’s transition to democracy, with expert speakers from across academia, NGOs, and the media.

Organizational success = community success

More than three years since that first fateful trip, Conflictfood is still a small, three-person operation. As a nascent social enterprise, profits are invested back into the company. For Würtenberger, the ideal next step is securing investment. “We want to grow the team and ultimately to have a bigger impact,” he says.

As for their next products, the team is in touch with coffee farmers in Yemen, following a request from German development agency GIZ, as well as Afghan almond growers and Palestinian olive oil producers. In the meantime, a fermented red tea from Myanmar will soon be available in the online shop.

Although growth is moderate, it’s steady. So far, the company has been able to return to producers with bigger purchase orders every year. In Shakiban, the social impact can already be seen: Commerce with Conflictfood has been one piece in helping the women from the Shura afford to send their children to school and university. Women from the Shura have expanded into other opportunities by opening a beauty salon and computer cafe in the village. In the future, they plan to purchase more land, buy new equipment, and invest in cultivating other crops.

Back in Germany, Würtenberger finds that things are happening much faster in the world of social impact than in traditional business. “We feel this uplifting energy from all our stakeholders and network partners,” he explains. Fortunately, Conflictfood gives consumers a direct outlet for that uplifting energy: using purchasing power to uplift others while bringing delicious delicacies into their own world.