By Mariam Alimi
The cultivation, development and introduction of the saffron plant in Herat as the center of saffron production in the country is undoubtedly due to the man whom the President of Afghanistan has dubbed the “father of saffron”. Twenty-five years ago, when no one still knew about saffron and was not familiar with its cultivation, a man from the remote Pashtun Zarghun district east of Herat province brought Saffron onions to Herat and established a Saffron industry in the country.
An experienced old man who died on 15 September 2020 after months of fighting cancer, and his body was buried in Herat. Haji Mohammad Akbar, known as “Baba Saffron”, received the title from former President Hamid Karzai. In the early years, he began growing Saffron on a 300-square-meter plot of agricultural land.
His son Haji Jalil Ahmad says that during the years when residents of Herat border districts with Iran were involved in drug trafficking, his father smuggled Saffron onions across the border and gained experience from Saffron fields in Khorasan of Iran that imported this plant to Herat.
The Director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock of Herat Province also emphasizes the important role of the father of Afghan Saffron in founding and promoting this crop in Herat. Abdul Sabur Rahmani says that “during the years when Saffron had few buyers in the country and no one knew how to grow and harvest it, Haji Mohammad Akbar made efforts to preserve and develop this plant in Herat.” Mr Rahmani added that “the role of the father of Afghan Saffron in encouraging other farmers to replace Saffron with drugs has been significant.”
Jalil Ahmad, the son of Saffron father, also believes that because of his father’s perseverance and efforts, Saffron is now grown and produced in fourteen provinces of the country. Jalil Ahmad says that the amount of his father’s land under Saffron cultivation has reached 150 acres after about two decades.
Haji Mohammad Akbar’s son adds that in the last two and a half years that Baba Saffron was struggling with illness, they tried to protect the price from falling price and to handle the problems of Saffron exports.
Saffron, which is known as the main alternative to poppy in the country, has had a thriving and profitable market in recent years. But in the last one year, the price of Saffron in the country has decreased by about 60 per cent and now each kilo of Saffron in the Herat market is sold for about 30,000 Afghanis.
The head of the Department of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock of Herat province says that the reason for the decrease in Saffron prices is the prevalence of the Coronavirus and the decrease in demand in world markets. Last year, about 15 tons of Saffron were produced in Herat. Officials of the province’s agriculture department predict that production of this plant will increase to 20 tons this year.
Following the death of Afghanistan’s Saffron father, the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, and the governor of Herat have praised his efforts to promote Saffron in Afghanistan, calling his death a loss for Afghanistan.
(The author is an Afghanistan based photographer. Views are personal.)