Student Start-ups: Red Gold of Afghanistan is empowering Afghani women

How the saffron start-up has blossomed since winning big at Dunin-Deshpande

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Nazaneen Qauomi, MMIE ’19, Herman Kaur, MECE ’19, and Mustafa Ansari, MMIE ’19, have combined international relationships, female empowerment, and delicious products into one business through their startup, Red Gold of Afghanistan.

The three Queen’s students met recently through the Queen's Innovation Centre Summer Initiative (QICSI), a four-month program providing its successful applicants with funding and mentorship for entrepreneurial ventures. When they formed a group at the beginning of the summer, they had no idea that in three short months, their business would win one of the Dunin-Deshpande Summer Pitch Competition’s grand prizes, securing them $10,000 in seed funding.

Now riding the wave of their win, Red Gold of Afghanistan is growing beyond the trio’s wildest dreams.

Red Gold of Afghanistan’s goal is to empower women in Afghanistan through cultivating and selling saffron in international markets. According to Kaur, one of the company’s founding members, Red Gold of Afghanistan is motivated by more than profit. 

In an interview with The Journal, Kaur explained, “We don't want to focus only on finance, but on empowering women.”

Quaomi emphasized that saffron, and Red Gold of Afghanistan’s business model, could help women by putting economic power in their hands.

“Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice,” Qauomi said. “It has the potential to increase women’s participation in a male-dominated society such as Afghanistan [and] to alleviate poverty.”

For the company’s three founders, this cause comes from their experiences as immigrants to Canada. Qauomi, who grew up in Afghanistan during wartime, wants to empower other young women who face the same struggles she did.

“The inspiration [for Red Gold of Afghanistan] comes from myself,” she said. “Throughout my life, I have faced lots of struggles, like [fighting] for opportunities to go to school, get educated, and be part of the workforce.”

Since winning the August pitch competition, Red Gold of Afghanistan has been poised to make this empowerment a reality. This year, Quaomi will travel back to Afghanistan to speak with saffron growers and create the framework for importing saffron to Canada.

Kaur explained that in the meantime, she and co-founder Mustafa Ansari will be laying the groundwork for sales in Canada. This process, which they’ve already started through market testing in Kingston, will ensure Red Gold of Afghanistan has an interested customer base when the product officially launches.

“[Quaomi] will speak to the women in Afghanistan who we are in touch with to give them training in order to have the best-quality premium saffron,” Kaur said. “We are working on the packaging and the branding in order to start selling it by next year.”

Quaomi and Kaur are incredibly proud of Red Gold of Afghanistan’s progress, especially since their mentors at QICSI didn’t think they’d make it.

"When we pitched, we were advised not to come back for the final competition,” Kaur said. “We took it as a challenge. Our only thought in our mind[s] at that point was that we didn’t care if we won [...] we just wanted to stand on the stage and have the opportunity to pitch.” 

To the trio’s surprise, their work—which they had been told was inadequate—paid off, and Red Gold of Afghanistan walked away with one of the largest prizes.

“I wasn’t even waiting for any grand prize,” Quaomi said. “This prize was a real dedication for us. We definitely worked hard for the feedback that we got.”

Although they’ve only been business owners for a few months, the founders say they’ve learned a lot about entrepreneurship and hard work since taking part in QICSI. Kaur and Quaomi want to encourage other Queen’s students who are thinking of starting their own projects to look for feedback, but tune out negativity.

“There will be a lot of people who say no to you,” Quaomi said. “Not everybody will believe in you, even your closest friends and family members. They don’t have the same passion as you have. Your idea is like your baby [...] having that mindset at the beginning gives you strength.”

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