Northeastern Afghanistan might be the last place on earth that you’d expect to find inspiration for a new social impact business – especially in the food industry.
With short summers and jagged peaks that soar past 20,000 feet, the Hindu Kush mountains defy any attempts at profitable farming. But once a year, foragers head up the cliffs to gather wild mountain cumin, a favorite local spice that’s largely unknown in the rest of the world.
As a young aid worker stationed in Afghanistan, Ethan Frisch surely wasn’t the first Westerner to taste the stuff, but thanks to his background as a chef in New York City, he instantly recognized that it was something special.
That rare, tiny seed was the inspiration for Burlap & Barrel, a single-origin spice company that sources unique and beautiful products from smallholder farmers sustaining an ancient trade in some of the most remote parts of the world. The company aims to reduce inequality and exploitation in food systems by connecting farmers to high value markets.
Ethan founded the company with Ori Zohar, a longtime friend and seasoned social entrepreneur who describes their roles succinctly: “He is the chef, and I am the eater.”
Catering to both professional and home cooks, Burlap & Barrel’s online store boasts products from 14 countries, searchable by spice name, flavor, and use. Each product profile includes a backstory as rich as its flavor, educating shoppers on the growing and harvesting traditions of dedicated farmers, and the complex flavor profiles that result. There is even recipe inspiration.
Who knew that warm and spicy cinnamon leaves of Zanzibar could add body to soups and stews, and that the floral notes of rare yellow cardamom could alter the souls of cakes and cookies?
Masters of Their Craft
Throughout human history, spices have been a source of fascination and profit. “You have to remember countries went to war over this stuff,” says Ori. “People have been intrigued by spices for thousands of years and indulged in wild mythological origin stories.”
Still today, with the global spice market valued at more than $15 billion, growers can be fiercely protective: In Alta Vera Paz, Guatemala, Ori tells of a trekker who tends to his floral cardamom pods armed with a handgun and pepper grinder.
Unfortunately for the farmers who take such pride in their crops, the international spice trade values profit margins over quality.
“By the time spices make it through the supply chain, they’ve exchanged hands fifteen to twenty times, good and bad lots have been mixed together, and they’ve likely been adulterated,” explains Ori.
There was room for impact and change. When they first meet a smallholder spice farmer, Ethan and Ori try to learn as much as possible about the product life cycle – how it is grown, the time and processing methods involved, harvesting, and the journey to the market.
“These farmers are masters of their craft,” says Ori. “There is nothing we can teach them about growing and processing.” Instead the duo helps growers discover efficiencies within existing systems. “We ask what they can do themselves instead of outsourcing to expensive third parties,” says Ori.
The list of activities includes cleaning, grinding, and packing, all essential steps that have translated to new jobs in the farmers’ home communities since Burlap became involved. But how is all this reinvestment made possible?
“We help farmers register with the FDA,” says Ori. “They become their own exporters and we are the importer of record.” By buying entire lots from spice farmers directly, Burlap is able to pay four times the commodity price in some cases.
Connection Over Commoditization
The close partnership also means less time and hurdles for farmers to get their product to market. “We eliminate intermediaries who are extending lead times and taking huge cuts without adding value,” adds Ori.
“Our turmeric guy in South India – we bought out his entire harvest this year.” Now he can expand his regenerative organic growing practices and has time and resources to share his techniques with others.
With greater access to high value markets, farmers are also able to invest more in their communities. “In Zanzibar some cinnamon farmers set up an informal bus to help their people safely get around.”
The company also identifies unused ingredients and byproducts farmers could spin off as additional revenue-generating products. “With nutmeg for example, the spice is the seed and mace grows on the outside,” explains Ori. “The fruit typically gets composted, but it can be distilled into a delicate fruit liquor.”
These collaborative efforts help the farmers build more diverse and sustainable operations that aren’t dependent on a single product.
The spirit of teamwork extends far beyond Burlap’s engagement with individual farmers. Through their travels and use of basic 3G technology like Whatsapp and Google Translate, Ethan and Ori have been able to connect farmers to each other worldwide.
“We’ll say that the guys in Indonesia are doing this and show them pictures” to inspire healthy competition and create a sense of belonging among growers who often feel isolated. “Our dream is to host a conference that unites these farmers eager to share their fine products and practices with each other and the world.”
Elevating Others & Looking Ahead
Traveling to be with the farmers has been key to their learning process and experience, but Ethan and Ori realize it isn’t a realistic option for everyone. “Part of our mission here at home is connecting aspiring chefs to global products they might otherwise not learn about,” Ori says.
Since 2018, the company has donated its time, network, and spices to a wide array of organizations tackling food justice, equity, and access issues.
These include League of Kitchens, where immigrant women are hired to teach cooking classes as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding, and Emma’s Torch, an apprentice-run restaurant that empowers refugees through culinary education.
Whether abroad or stateside, Ori and Ethan have always sought to be intentional about their work elevating others.
“We once met these pepper farmers in Vietnam – two young guys in their 20s,” Ori reminisces. “They invited us to pick high up in the trees with them.”
Two larger Americans atop a wobbly ladder overlooking a lush canopy of trees turned out not to be the greatest idea. “We came crashing down and broke their only ladder,” laughs Ori. But at least the treetop view contributed to a vision for the future of flavor (even if it meant buying a new ladder).