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Afghanistan Update

by Burlap & Barrel Co-founder Ethan Frisch

Dear B&B Community,

My experience living and working in Afghanistan was one of the key contributing experiences to launching Burlap & Barrel. I moved to Afghanistan in 2012, when I was 25 years old and fascinated by the country's complex history, politics and culture. I had just graduated with a Master's degree in International Development, so when I got an offer to work in Afghanistan, I quit my job as a chef with a high-end catering company and got on a plane to Kabul.

I lived in Afghanistan for two and a half years, mostly working with the nonprofit the Aga Khan Foundation on a series of construction projects funded by the German government. Rural communities across the country's northeast were provided with training and grants for infrastructure projects, including schools, clinics, bridges and irrigation systems, which the community councils selected and my organization constructed. My job, which I loved, was to travel across four rural provinces with my Afghan engineer colleagues to visit construction sites, monitor progress and help solve problems. I was on the road constantly for almost two years, spending weeks at a time bouncing around in a pickup truck as we drove through the high mountains of the Hindu Kush. 

The time I spent in Afghanistan has continued to be incredibly influential in my life and career since I moved away — not only did my wife and I meet in Kabul, but it's also where I first tasted the Wild Mountain Cumin and started bringing it home for friends in the restaurant industry. When Ori and I launched Burlap & Barrel in October 2016, that cumin was part of our starting lineup of spices, and it has remained one of our best-selling spices (and my personal favorite.) To the best of my knowledge, we were the very first spice company to import this unique cumin and to build a supply chain from cumin foragers in Badakhshan to home cooks across the US.

To set up these new supply chains, we've had help from two incredible individuals in Afghanistan, Saif H. and Dawood Sherzad. Both are former colleagues of mine, people I first worked with at the Aga Khan Foundation almost 10 years ago. Saif established our initial relationships with the village-cooperatives of foragers who harvest the cumin, and he then had the opportunity to move to Europe, where he lives now. Dawood has done the hard work of scaling those supply chains to meet your demand, setting up facilities and hiring community members to help clean, sort and package the cumin for export. Our first shipment of cumin, all the way back in late 2016, was about 50 pounds. Our upcoming shipment, from this summer's harvest, is around 10,000 pounds. The first half of that shipment was scheduled to leave the country on Sunday, August 15th, the day the Ghani government collapsed and the Taliban claimed power.

One of the ways we support our partners around the world is by pre-paying a portion of the cost of our next shipment of spices. It's a challenging business decision for us (I don't know of any other spice company that does it), but we do it because it helps our partner farmers grow the best possible product, with cash to cover expenses and a break from worrying if they'll be able to find a buyer or how much money they'll make. Our business is resilient enough to absorb the risk on their behalf, so we do it. (You can read all about the other ways we partner with farmers in our Impact Report.) A couple weeks ago, when we started to recognize the risk of a major disruption, we sent the final payment for the cumin; we figured our partner farmers were going to need the money quickly, and we trusted them to hold it for us until we could ship it out of the country. We're looking forward to sharing the 2021 harvest of Wild Mountain Cumin from Badakhshan with you as soon as we can. 

I also asked Dawood if he'd be interested in sharing some of his thoughts about the current crisis with you, and he was eager to do so. Scroll down to listen to a 17-minute voice memo, recorded yesterday in Kabul, where he talks about his personal story, his successful career with non-profits, his recent injury in a suicide bombing, his concerns for his teenage daughters and his hopes for his own future and the future of Afghanistan. There's also an English transcript if you prefer to read, but I highly encourage you to listen to him tell you the story himself. We are not sharing his picture for security reasons.

If you'd like to support the thousands of Afghan refugees who will be arriving in the US over the coming months, please donate generously to the IRC and Lutheran Social Services. Over the next several weeks, they will be the frontline workers supporting our newest neighbors arriving in Wisconsin, Virginia, California and elsewhere.

Please donate what you can to help out some people who are going through the hardest time of their lives right now. 

If you're local to Washington, DC, my wife is also volunteering with a grassroots effort to collect supplies, and you can donate here.

Thanks for reading, thanks for the many questions and check-ins over the past week, and thanks for supporting our little experiment in social enterprise.



Message from Dawood

Click on the play button to listen to the audio or read the transcript below.


Audio Transcript:

 Hello everyone, this is Dawood Sherzad, speaking from Afghanistan, I hope everyone is doing well. To give you a bit of information about myself, I have been working with national and international NGOs since the last regime of the Taliban. It's been almost 20 years that I have been working with international NGOs in the development sector, and Ethan and I were former colleagues. He was working with AKF Afghanistan and I was working with MercyCorps Afghanistan on a project that was implemented by both Aga Khan and MercyCorps, these two NGOs. That's how I met with Ethan and B&B.

It's really hard to say how I have selected NGOs as my primary career, because during the Taliban regime there was nothing to do, so all of a sudden I have found a way to be recruited by an NGO called IFRC International. My first job with an international NGO, I was hired as a security guard. Then after a year, because I was a bit educated, let's say I know a few words of English, in those days I was promoted as a Logistics and Procurement Assistant with that organization. Then I worked with that organization until the end of 2004, and then our family moved to Kabul due to some issues, we shifted from Herat to Kabul.

When we came to Kabul I have been working with many other sectors, including some private jobs, and then I found a job with MercyCorps Afghanistan, and that's where my real career started. First I was a technical assistant, and then by 2010 I was working in one of the senior management positions in Mercycorps Afghanistan. That's how I met with Ethan, and found that he has a real passion for collecting spices, so that's how we met.

To give you a bit of history of the Taliban in Afghanistan, actually the last time the Taliban was here I was very young, I was graduating from 12th grade. Due to the financial issues I was not able to go to university, so I have stopped [my education] there and went to start working. In those times, we were not familiar with the world, we didn't know anything about outside of Afghanistan. Because I am a person who was born in a war, I grew up during the war. In these past 15-16 years, we lived a little bit, of a life which was kindof ok, with the support of the US, when the new [US-backed] regime came, we were ok. But after that, then again the fighting has started, all this nonsense. We didn't know anything about the outside-of-Afghanistan world, and we were thinking this is our life, this is our country, we are living it.

I still remember the Taliban's fall [in 2001]. I was in Herat city, it was an evening, we were sitting in our house, these B52 planes of the US, they bombed the Taliban's location and next morning when we woke up, there was no one. No government was there, no Talib was there, not the previous government, the Karzai government, no one was there. So for 24 hours, nobody was there in the town. After 24 hours, the new force which was supported by the US alliance, they came and they took control of the city.

So that's how the regime [of the past 20 years] has started, and during this time, to be fair and honest with you, Afghanistan has made a lot of good achievements. A lot, a lot of good achievements with the support of the US and their allies and all the international donors. Especially I myself, I've been working with international NGOs for almost 20 years, and I know how those achievements are being made, and how hard we have worked to achieve all those achievements. Let's give my example, I've been giving 20 years of my life in this sector, and all of a sudden everything is gone, like this. We have achieved a lot, and hopefully these achievements will be kept, not destroyed. It's been really frustrating for us as Afghans.

From the beginning, everyone was thinking that, when this internal war started, these bomb blasts, all these things have started in the city. Ethan remembers I was once, in June 2021, I got caught in a suicide bomb. I was in a car near where a car was exploded with a magnetic bomb. Luckily I have survived and I'm alive, I'm still talking with you guys. Anyway it's a really tough situation. Everybody was asking why are you not leaving Afghanistan, especially my family, especially my kids, my two daughters who are now 16 and 13, they were asking, "Why are we [staying] Dad? You got caught in this, and next time it will be our turn, maybe we will get killed, maybe our school will be attacked." I did not have a plan to leave Afghanistan since this new development. It's been really unfortunate that this unexpected situation has happened.

Overall, our perspective in terms of US support is very good, because during this time, Afghanistan has made significant achievements, we started from scratch. When the Taliban left their regime, there was nothing, there was no army, there was no government system, there were no systems to record anything, nothing was proper, everything was just from 2-3 pages that was kept with people in their houses. All these achievements have been made these past 20 years but unfortunately due to some internal and external issues and some neighboring countries influence on the system, now everything is back to point zero. Hopefully not zero, but let's see how it's going to be. When you think about these kinds of things, there are lots of kinds of things, they have both made lots of mistakes, the mistakes were there, and no one was in favor of it. We don't know the face of our politicians. In reality they were not truthful with us, they were not honest with us, they were not saying what the people should hear. Everything was behind the curtain, behind closed doors. Even though we had good freedom of speech and good media, nothing was hiding from them. [The politicians] were not providing us as an Afghan, as countrymen, [the information that] we should be aware of.

The big mistake the US made was signing the agreement with the Taliban. After that agreement, the conflict has [increased] drastically, That was the point that I still remember that history has repeated back to 1998, when there was the government of Najib. Najib didn't know anything [about it], but the UN and the other alliances were talking with the Mujahedin in Peshawar in Pakistan on behalf of the government functioning in Afghanistan. The same thing has happened with this current government, Ghani's government. The government didn't know anything but the agreement was signed by the US government on behalf of Afghanistan. This was one of the biggest mistakes that the US made, and it jeopardizes all the achievements, all the good work that has been done. And I think this has made us very vulnerable.

When we were working with NGOs, we have a kindof a life where we can support ourselves and our families. During this time, I got married, I have now 5 kids, 3 boys, 2 girls. My oldest girl Sahar is now 16, she's in 12th grade, this year she will be graduating from high school. I don't know anything about their future, I cannot predict anything, I cannot make any decisions, how it's going to be, what will be the future, how their future will look. Because currently, I am a person where I have the Talib regime experience, when they were first in power. And when I remember those days, those dark days, and I predict that for my kids, it's really hard for me, it's really frustrating, it's really really frustrating. And sometimes during the night I cannot get good enough sleep because of tension, thinking a lot about everything, what should I do, should I stay or should I leave, if I leave where I should go, how I should go, all these kinds of things to think about. Because when you're a parent, you have the responsibility to provide your kids with the best life.

So that's what's happening, and currently within this government it's been one week since we are experiencing it. So far, to be honest, there are no positive changes in their attitude but there are no negative changes in their attitude as well. There are some positive changes, back in those days women were not allowed to go to school, but in some provinces including Herat, [the Taliban] have opened the girls schools so girls can go to school until age 12. They are saying they are not [attacking] anyone but what's happening behind the curtain, it's not clear what's going to happen, how it's going to be. Our situation is not clear, for example the economical situation is very bad in Kabul, in terms of our economical support, although I have a salary I cannot get my salary because the banks are closed. All the cash that I have is all stuck in the bank and I cannot get it out. The banks are closed, the atm machines are not working. These are the current situations, let's see what is going to happen, let's see how it's going to be, and hopefully let's hope for the best. Please pray for us, pray for us, and hopefully the situation will improve. Thank you very much.

how do we compare? Supermarket Icon Supermarket Fair Trade Icon Fair Trade
Heirloom Spices Yes No No
Fair Prices for Farmers Yes No Depends on global commodity price
Time in Storage None. We import spices at harvest Up to 10 years At least 1 year
Flavor Profile Intense & fresh Stale & bland Inconsistent
Knows Farmers Names Yes No Unlikely
Customer Service Fast responses from real people! No There might be a 1-800 number?



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