Spices and Inspiration

The latest story, Business not Bullets, came from several sources – first, a long-running conversation / argument about what would actually be economically feasible to transport across interstellar distances, as drawn from current and historical examples. Ideally, a colony world would export digital entertainment: songs, movies, books. They contain no mass, require no extra fuel to get to orbit, and can be endlessly duplicated: it costs no more to sell the 30,000th than it did to sell the first.

Of course, then you have the issues involved with intellectual property and piracy / refusal to pay royalties owed. As well, the issues of marketing one culture’s art in another culture. Nothing’s perfect!

On the other end of the spectrum are raw, unfinished bulk goods, like lumber, ore, and grain. These require a lot of mass for a low price, and many’s the colony that promptly set about trying to finish the goods at home rather than send them overseas for low money and then have to buy the high-priced finished goods.

Spices are one of the few physical things that really hit the high end of the cost/volume scale, and require a specific environment (and, often, soil composition) to grow. Even slight variations can be very noticeable – Madagascar vanilla vs. Mexican vanilla, for example, and the same species of pepper tastes very different between the microclimate of the Hatch Valley vs. elsewhere in the American Southwest. (If you’ve ever grown a jalapeno in Alaska, you get something sad and faintly spicy compared to one grown in Arizona.)

Not to mention Kona or Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.

In fact, there are a couple awesome, determined, crazy folks who are currently proving this concept right now. Rumi Spice is the business started by a bunch of vets who are trying to jumpstart the economy in Afghanistan, and provide income to the rural farmers – so they are selling Afghan saffron, which, even after logistics and transportation costs (and those are fearsome), still brings in 6 times the income of the next most valuable cash crop (opium), and promotes far more stability.

In the case of Rumi, that stability is far beyond a farmer’s income – it’s the jobs for the women who harvest the saffron, and it’s the perception that Americans are more than soldiers tearing up the place, not just an unknowable enemy with no language or customs in common. It’s also the perception that you can do business in Afghanistan, it’s more than terrorists and war, and that there are logistical links already in place that others can use to do business as well.

They’ve also expanded to spice mixes and other spices, like black cumin and wild-foraged fennel – just beware, because you’re getting extremely fresh, high quality spices. I have to cut the cumin to half of what’s called for in recipes, because it’s too fresh compared to the recipes that assume I’m getting half-stale pre-ground cumin that’s sat on a supermarket shelf for months!

As far as research goes, though, sometimes you learn more from failures than you do from success. And that is where Combat Flip Flops comes in. Like Rumi, it’s a company founded by a bunch of vets who clearly saw their role as soldiers being “the perfect tool for the wrong job.” They tried to found a company that would make use of an Afghan boot factory to make flip-flops (thongs, in Australian).

Unfortunately, the difference in logistics and economies of scale between spices and shoes sunk their effort to manufacture and ship from Afghanistan. They didn’t give up; they relocated to another former war zone, with far better supply and shipping – Bogota, Columbia. From there, they funnel the profits into things like education for Afghan girls, and mine clearing.

If you’re interested, they give a thorough after-action report of the whole adventure to the date of writing, cleverly disguised as an ebook named: Steps Ascending: the Rise of the Unarmed Forces. Which certainly helped me, when trying to write the things that’ll go wrong with spice and tea trading with a war-torn planet that doesn’t even have a proper spaceport, just a cleared field.

And now you know!

 

12 comments

  1. I will admit to being suckered in and immediately buying some of the cumin as a gift for my significant other.

  2. Was in a brainstorming session some time ago where the topic was what commodities should a time traveling expedition bring with them for trade with the locals. My suggestion was whole spices and chocolate as opposed to much heavier tools and weapons.
    Of course the staple gifts and trade goods for GIs over the last hundred years or so has always been cigarettes and Hershey bars.
    One historical fact that does fly in the face of this is what the first explorers brought back with them early on when they visited the New World. Tree trunks, which commanded a great price in a Europe mostly stripped of mature trees save for some reserves owned by assorted royalty. In particular tall straight trees suitable for ship masts.

    1. That, and live-oak branches that had grown in to the right shape and size for ship keels. Apparently the Royal Navy sent people through the Carolinas marking trees and claiming them, according to an environmental history of forestry book I read.

    2. Yes, strategic value overrides purely economic/merchant value, and Britain was short on critical supplies for preserving their strength as an ocean-going power, and importing its shipbuilding supplies. Same reason Britain wouldn’t allow Denmark to go the Continental System; they needed to preserve their access to tar and rope for ship-building, and that was coming out of Scandinavia.

    3. They could still get conifers from Scandinavia for the masts (oak being too heavy) but American ones were better. Not that Americans appreciated it much since it required a whole lot more effort and then they didn’t pay any more than for regular timber.

      Then the American Revolution rolled around. Even before shooting started, Americans were impeding it more than they had with the merely begrudging efforts. I have actually heard of people attributing the American victory to the lack of masts. (They did go back to Scandinavia, but they had lost the art of making composite masts from smaller trees, since you could get taller ones from America.)

  3. In fact, there are a couple awesome, determined, crazy folks who are currently proving this concept right now. Rumi Spice is the business started by a bunch of vets who are trying to jumpstart the economy in Afghanistan, and provide income to the rural farmers – so they are selling Afghan saffron, which, even after logistics and transportation costs (and those are fearsome), still brings in 6 times the income of the next most valuable cash crop (opium), and promotes far more stability.

    Oh, gads, that is SO CLEVER!

    My husband– the security geek– has an epic rant about opium in Afghanistan, so I have an idea what they’re dealing with… this is awesome! So much of the value comes from a secured chain of supply, and being vets they’re more likely to be willing and able to resist having their system captured by the various gangs/tribes/whatever-their-term-for-mafia-and-cartel-is.

    The “one gram of saffron” thing looks like it would be a really good fit for the Statement Gift, too– I have an aunt who adores that stuff, they do things like Heifer International cards, and under twenty bucks in a display container is a brilliant price-point.

    1. Isn’t it? They’re hitting both the consumer/impulse purchase end of the market, and putting a lot of effort into commercial volume/high-end-restaurant supplies. I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more markup on the 1 gram/display bottle end than in the 1 kilogram to a Michelin restaurant – but the latter is a far more steady demand (Kung Flu aside), in volumes and scale that can really make the venture viable long-term.

  4. I would include gems as also being high-value while weighing next to nothing. Many minerals are only found in one small portion of the world where the conditions are right. Larimar is a good example: it only comes from one mountain in the Dominican Republic.

    Another choice would be pharmaceuticals, especially if they can be manufactured only under very specific conditions or need a specific, unusual ingredient that only comes from one location.

  5. Uh, wow. That’s a better price for saffron — AFTER shipping — than the first local supermarket one I was able to find.

Comments are closed.