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Fields of red gold - saffron in Afghanistan

Saffron (Crocus sativus) is used as an aromatic spice and to make perfume, dye and herbal medicines (DACAAR and ICARDA)
Saffron (Crocus sativus) is used as an aromatic spice and to make perfume, dye and herbal medicines

For Afghan farmers facing daily civil conflict and the almost constant threat of drought, opium poppies are a highly lucrative and relatively secure means of survival. Indeed poppies, which can earn up to 12 times the amount received for wheat per hectare, are the only source of income for about 1.7 million rural people in Afghanistan. The eradication of poppy growing is therefore a challenging and complex task.

While still in its infancy, cultivation of the spice crop saffron could offer a promising replacement to poppies. It delivers about one-half to two thirds the profit of poppies - up to 8 times more than wheat per hectare - but does offer some important agricultural advantages, as well as a clear conscience. So far, about 450 farmers are involved in saffron production in Herat Province and another 200 farmers have started saffron cultivation on a limited basis in other provinces. In 2006, the total production of saffron in Afghanistan was estimated at 900-950 kg.

Saffron (Crocus sativus) has been cultivated from Greece to Persia over the last 3500 years for use as an aromatic spice and to make perfume, dye and herbal medicines.

Each bulb produces a plant with one to seven purple flowers, which each possess three stigmas of about 25-30 mm in length. It takes more than 150,000 flowers to produce enough stigmas for 1 kilogram of saffron. Bulk quantities of low-grade saffron (which generally include other flower parts beside stigmas), can demand more than $1000 per kg in the marketplace of various countries, while small amounts of high quality, packaged saffron can fetch more than five times that amount.

A viable choice

Removing the stigmas from the freshly picked mauve flowers (DACAAR and ICARDA)
Removing the stigmas from the freshly picked mauve flowers

To assist and interest Afghan farmers in successfully growing saffron, a new National Saffron Co-ordination and Support Committee (NSCSC) was created in November 2006, led by Afghanistan's Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. The committee is charged with coordinating the work of ministries and research institutions on issues such as production, quality standards, import/export regulations and marketing. Training in saffron farming is being delivered by the DACAAR, a consortium of three Danish NGOs.

According to Benny Werge, DACAAR's Rural Development Programme Manager, this combination of activities will address some of the major constraints to widespread adoption of saffron, including ignorance of the crop and how to grow it, undeveloped markets and insufficient understanding of quality requirements to meet world market standards.

Advantages and challenges of saffron

Cultivating 'red gold', as saffron is sometimes called, offers several advantages over poppies. In particular, the saffron growing season is from mid-September to mid-November, outside the normal cropping season between March and August. Therefore, although a saffron crop requires repeated irrigation to achieve flowering, this does not compete with the irrigation needs of other crops.

Similarly, saffron does not take away labour needed during the regular growing season. Werge adds that although the saffron harvest is, like the poppy harvest, extremely labour intensive, requiring all family members to pick the fresh mauve flowers and stigmas every morning, it is cultivated for a shorter time period. Another advantage of saffron is that women are involved in growing the crop, giving them improved family and community status in comparison to opium farming, where the cultivation is done by men because of its illegality.

However, saffron is not without its challenges. Lack of land is a problem, since the crop needs irrigated land, which is heavily in demand. Moreover, saffron bulbs remain in the soil throughout the year, so the land cannot be used for other crops. Najib Malik, RALF* Programme Manager, comments, "Saffron is not recommended for fertile lands along the river valley. It is not justifiable to tie up the land for seven to eight years because of a crop that produces once a year, when three to four crops can be grown in rotation in the same year along these rich river basins."

Signs of success

Picking the safron flowers (DACAAR and ICARDA)
Picking the safron flowers

As Benny Werge points out, achieving the high price that will support a viable saffron industry in Afghanistan will depend on producing a top quality product, through extreme care in processing and the building of contacts in international markets. He is pleased to report, however, that a Dutch saffron trading company is at present establishing a branch in Herat. Also encouraging was the presentation, in 2006, of the Afghan government's National Drug Control Strategy, which focuses on activities such as disruption of the illicit opium drug trade and strengthening and diversifying legal rural livelihoods. "Opium can only disappear through a strong government and enforcement of law," says Werge." When that is in place, saffron presents a very good possibility."

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: May 2007


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