Bourse and Bazaar | Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Mohammad Qaempanah is a serial entrepreneur. His first business saw him act as a one-man internet service provider in his town, the connectivity from which he leveraged to start his next business, exporting saffron, a coveted spice with a heady aroma taken from the stigma of the crocus flower.
Qaempanah exported the spice until sanctions made it impossible. He then opened a vegetarian restaurant in Mashhad with the aim of “educating people about the way in which their eating habits are linked to global warming.” Furthering his commitment to the environment, he then founded Iran’s first “nature school,” also in Mashhad, which offered programs to enable children from the city to experience and enjoy time in nature, learning about the environment. Having spurred something of a movement, there are today over 40 such schools around Iran.
Qaempanah, whose grandfather was a saffron farmer, has now turned his attention to agriculture in his hometown of Qaen, in the province of Khorasan, with a venture that combines his knowledge of saffron, his commitment to the environment, and his aptitude in technology. This latest venture, Keshmoon, has already won accolades. The company was recognized as the “Best Seed Stage Startup” at the recent Iran Web and Mobile Festival. Mohammad-Javad Jahromi, Iran’s young Minister of Communication and Information Technology, acknowledged the company in a subsequent tweet.
This early recognition reflects the scope of Keshmoon’s commercial ambition and its innovative vision for Iran’s agricultural sector. In Qaempanah’s words, Keshmoon combines an “ecommerce platform that serves consumers with an ‘agritech’ layer that serves suppliers.” In simpler terms, he explains, Keshmoon connects “carefully selected farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture with premium consumers.”
In founding the company alongside his brother, Hamza, and a friend, Siamak Khorrami, Qaempanah took inspiration from the increasingly popular model of direct trade coffee, where coffee roasters ethically source beans directly from growers, and also the popular ecommerce platform Etsy, which allows artists and craftsmen to sell their wares directly to consumers online. But while these platforms primarily reflect innovations in ecommerce, Keshmoon seeks to use technology to change the methods of agriculture itself.
Speaking about his vision, Qaempanah is careful to point out that his motivation in founding Keshmoon was “not to help farmers improve their economic situation.” Rather, his “foremost concern was water.” In his view, “unless the issue of water depletion is managed, it won’t matter what the farmers choose to grow, it will be impossible to cultivate anything.”
In the town of Qaen, where Qaempanah’s grandfather cultivated the particularly aromatic saffron that brought fame to the region, the qanats, a traditional system of underground channels which tap into the aquifer, have long been replaced by modern wells. Over the years, farmers drilled more wells to pump ever-increasing volumes of water, seeking to grow crops ill-suited to the arid climate. The water table has dropped precipitously. As Qaempanah relays, “wells that were once 15 meters deep now need to extend to 135 meters.”
Qaempanah believes that farmers are currently stuck in a self-defeating economic cycle. Presently, the use of more water enables higher yields and therefore higher earnings. Keshmoon was designed as a “technical infrastructure to change this cycle.” By incentivizing farmers to move towards the sustainable cultivation of saffron, which is naturally well-suited to Khorasan’s arid climate, farmers will be able to use less water, and yet enjoy greater earnings.
This has proven an attractive proposition to the farmers of Qaen, where Keshmoon has recruited its first cohort of 30 farmers. As Qaempanah recounts, the local saffron growers were “invited to a meeting in the town mosque, where we explained our approach, how we wanted to help, and asked them to go home and think about it.” Despite concerns that it might be hard to explain the technical aspects of the concept, the pitch worked. Today, farmers from neighboring villages and towns regularly stop by Keshmoon’s office in Qaen to learn more about the program they have heard about. The company has earned the trust of the local community.
To gain acceptance to Keshmoon’s platform, farmers need to demonstrate competency growing saffron in the traditional manner. Keshmoon will introduce more stringent requirements in the near future, introducing guidelines consistent with sustainable farming. It will take about one year to “gain critical mass and give farmers the time to make adjustments to their planting,” says Qaempanah. He foresees Keshmoon partnering with universities and other institutions to help provide training to farmers unfamiliar with growing saffron in a sustainable manner in order to help them make the switch.
For farmers, the commercial appeal of Keshmoon is the higher price achieved for their crop by selling to consumers directly, rather than selling to local traders. One drawback is that using Keshmoon will require farmers to sell their harvest incrementally, as orders come in online. Some farmers have said that they prefer selling to the local buyers, who can purchase the whole harvest in one transaction. But the price advantage is substantial. Farmers on Keshmoon can expect to generate 20-40 percent more in earnings than those who sell locally in bulk.
Laudably, Keshmoon has been very transparent about pricing for the sake of both consumers and farmers and offers a detailed breakdown on their website. Generally speaking, farmers receive 70 percent of the saffron’s retail price, while around 12 percent is earmarked for quality control, packaging, and transport, and the remaining 18 percent goes towards Keshmoon’s overhead.
Once accepted to Keshmoon, farmers need to create their online profiles. In most cases, the Keshmoon team helps by taking photos and recording the farmer’s personal details, family history, and also explanations of how the saffron is farmed. These profiles can be seen on the Keshmoon website, where consumers can even send messages to specific farmers.
Qaempanah notes that some farmers, typically those who are younger or who have had more education, have been able to author their profiles themselves. In some cases, it was the farmers’ children, many of whom own smartphones, who took responsibility for telling the story of the family farm through words and pictures. There is immense potential for the farmers to develop both some technology literacy and also their personal brand, which can help them connect with consumers more proactively. Commercial considerations aside, there is something affecting about seeing the personal portraits of the farmers and families behind Iran’s most precious crop.
A Keshmoon Giftbox
A connection to the farmers and a beautiful presentation of the saffron, including a small booklet about its origins, has proven a hit among consumers. The company has been selling online for nine months, and boasts a few hundred clients, about one-quarter of whom whom make recurring purchases. Keshmoon’s models show that it will take about 20-40 clients in order to support each farmer. At the moment, the company has stopped accepting new farmers onto its platform until is grows the client-base further. A big boost will come when the company begins selling to Europe later this year.
But while the Keshmoon story may begin with saffron, Qaempanah’s ambition is much greater. For the next few years, the Keshmoon team will focus on perfecting its “technical infrastructure,” combining ecommerce and agritech to open a new market for saffron. The big test will be in the marketing and branding. Qaempanah hopes to achieve a level of awareness such that “when people hear saffron, they think of Keshmoon.”
If this model can be developed successfully for saffron, the company plans to expand to other crops and bringing a similar model to other agricultural regions in Iran. Qaempanah imagines a situation where farmers from around the country can approach Keshmoon and receive recommendations for which crops to grow based both on analysis of the local environment and also Keshmoon’s data on which crops will sell most effectively on its marketplace. In this way, Keshmoon would serve to introduce efficiencies of scale typically reserved for large, corporatized farming. The economic and environmental impact for Iran, where the agricultural sector remains dominated by smallholder farmers, could be transformative.
But it is early days yet and the success of this grand masterplan will first depend on the successful collaboration between the saffron farmers of Qaen and the team at Keshmoon. Theirs is a collaboration that crosses talents and crosses generations—both a microcosm of the economic and environmental challenges facing Iran and a case study in the creative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit that may eventually solve those challenges.