As founder of Red Gold of Afghanistan, Nazaneen Qauomi is empowering women in her home country to support themselves through saffron farming.
by Hailey Eisen
So far in her young life, Nazaneen Qauomi, 28, has lived through a terrible war and dealt with a terrible disease. Now, she’s determined to make life better for other women.
Nazaneen is the founder of Red Gold of Afghanistan. The company, which she started while studying at Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, aims to help women in Afghanistan become self-sufficient by growing and selling saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.
Nazaneen grew up in Afghanistan. In 2001, she was 9 years old, living with her parents in Peshawar-Pakistan, when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban began. (Nazaneen’s family fled to Pakistan during the Taliban regime and went back to Afghanistan after the establishment of the new Afghan government.)
As a child, she dreamed of becoming a doctor. By 2014, she was well along that path; she was in her fourth year of a seven-year medical degree. Then, her family got the chance to escape the war and come to Canada. They arrived in Toronto that same year. It was a fresh start for her family. But for Nazaneen, it also meant starting school all over. None of her Afghan medical-school credits applied in Canada.
Undeterred, Nazaneen entered university in Toronto for a science degree. Then tragedy struck. Her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. “It was one of the biggest challenges and shocks I’ve ever faced,” Nazaneen recalls. All at once she became a student in a new country and a full-time caregiver to her father as his disease quickly progressed.
Better living through agriculture
Nazaneen came up with the idea for Red Gold for Afghanistan during her fourth year in university, in 2017. By that time she’d decided that she wanted to pursue the type of career that would help ease poverty in developing countries like Afghanistan. More specifically, Nazaneen wanted to help women there prosper.
She put together a proposal and submitted it to the Clinton Global Initiative. CGI is a branch of the Clinton Foundation that encourages students to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. “My proposal was to economically empower women in developing countries through agriculture,” Nazaneen explains. “I knew the problems being faced by women in Afghanistan — that 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture. And while women are active in that sector, they’re not being paid for their work.”
“I knew the problems being faced by women in Afghanistan — that 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture. And while women are active in that sector, they’re not being paid for their work.”
Her proposal got accepted. Soon she was off to the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Boston, ready to bring her idea to life.
But a number of hurdles still stood in her way. One was working out the nuts and bolts of helping women go from farmworker to farm entrepreneur. Nazaneen knew that she did not want to run an aid organization that doled out charity. She wanted to create a real company that would train women and equip them with the resources to run their own businesses and earn their own money.
Eventually, she decided to focus on saffron. Not only is saffron lucrative (a gram can fetch $17), the spice is native to Afghanistan. Indeed, some of the world’s highest-quality saffron is grown in that country.
Another problem was that Nazaneen knew little about starting a company. She hadn’t even put together a business plan yet. So she decided to go to business school. During a pitch competition, someone told her about Smith School of Business and its entrepreneurial-focused Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program. Upon investigation, she says, “I realized [the program] was a perfect fit for me.”
Striking red gold
Nazaneen completed the first part of her MMIE degree in Toronto, all while working part-time and taking care of her ailing father. Then, last year, she was accepted into the Queen’s Innovation Centre Summer Internship (QICSI) in Kingston, Ont. The four-month program provides funding and mentorship to would-be entrepreneurs.
“One of the requirements of the program was that I work with a team,” Nazaneen says. So she joined with two other Queen’s students, Herman Kaur and Mustafa Ansari. The trio dove into the world of saffron production, learning about the spice and its health benefits. “It’s like turmeric and ginger, only better,” Nazaneen says. “There’s great potential for it internationally, beyond being used in cooking.”
They spent the summer at markets in Kingston selling saffron iced tea and growing their reach on social media. In August, the team won one of the Dunin-Deshpande Summer Pitch Competition’s grand prizes at Queen’s, securing them $10,000 in seed funding, to be used for a trip to Afghanistan. “It was my first time going back to my home country in five years, and it was a hard trip to make,” Nazaneen recalls. “As a woman, to travel back there is not easy. But my family fully supported me, my school supported me, and my mom even went back with me.”
“Design thinking teaches us critical thinking and problem solving — something that’s needed in developing countries, where they’re surrounded by problems.”
In Afghanistan, Nazaneen spent two weeks selecting women involved in saffron harvesting as partners. She also provided them with training and support. “I learned a lot about their problems and challenges, things I hadn’t known about when I was just a student in the country. We also bought saffron from these women, which we’re going to find a market for here as a raw product, while also making it into tea.”
She also ran workshops on design thinking for MBA students at Kardan University and Engineering students of Kabul University. “Design thinking teaches us critical thinking and problem solving — something that’s needed in developing countries, where they’re surrounded by problems,” she says.
Back in Canada, Nazaneen graduated with her MMIE degree this past fall. Taking the program was a great decision that helped take Red Gold of Afghanistan from a dream to a fully incorporated business, she says. “The biggest thing I learned during my studies, which helps me to this day, was to never underestimate your ability to do something. Even when there’s a lot going on, we’re all still capable of bringing about change.”
Today Nazaneen is determined to see Red Gold of Afghanistan succeed. She’s currently developing its marketing plan while working as a university teaching assistant and taking care of her father.
“As an entrepreneur, you’ll see and hear a lot of no’s on your way,” says Nazaneen. “But you have to listen to your gut and intuition, and follow opportunity.”