Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The story of Ziba Foods begins over tea—in Afghanistan. Mention that country today, and it immediately conjures images of danger, destruction, and despair. But there was a time not that many years ago when Afghanistan’s beautiful countryside was a major source of exceptional dried fruits and nuts—before conflict and its consequences intervened.
When Patrick Johnson and Raffi Vartanian first visited the country, they experienced the daily ritual of afternoon tea accompanied by a beautiful spread of dried fruits and nuts. “We were blown away by the taste and variety. Listening to our friends and their family speak so proudly of the products that were once considered the best quality in the world, we knew we wanted everyone to enjoy this discovery in the same way we did.”
That, of course, was easier said than done in this strife-riven country. It took several years and many visits to select suitable products (there were 109 varieties of almonds alone), create a sustainable supply chain, and build a factory. Once that was accomplished, Johnson and Vartanian got their artisanal heirloom products in front of some eager, high-end New York chefs, and Ziba Foods was launched.
Drawing from centuries of agricultural traditions that relied upon both cultivated and wild-foraged fruits and nuts, Johnson and Vartanian were able to source unique offerings such as wild white mulberries and pistachio kernels, tree-dried apricots and sun-dried figs, Parwan walnuts and Kishmish raisins, and Gurbandi almonds.
But the pair had more than just cuisine and commerce in mind. They envisioned Ziba Foods as a company that would disrupt the imbalance between farmers and traders, pay farmers quickly and fairly, guarantee quality, and restore the reputation of Afghan products.
But their aspirations went even deeper in their desire to improve the lives and conditions of the farmers and communities that Ziba helped support. “Some aspects of operating in Afghanistan can be extremely frustrating—security is often an issue, social norms are certainly not what we’re used to. It can be really difficult, as quite a bit of responsibility rests on our shoulders, for our employees and their families, the communities they live in, and our farmers. It starts adding up, and so our decisions have a deeper impact.”
Since Afghan women are often marginalized, Ziba maintains a workforce that is 85 percent female. Employment is year-round despite the cyclical nature of harvesting, and employees are offered industry-related training. Johnson and Vartanian sum it up beautifully: “We reached a point in life where it was no longer a tenable proposition to lament our day-to-day work and wonder ‘What else can we be doing with our lives?’ We love making the connection to consumers who are excited to try new products. But we’re also drawn to the developmental aspects of our work—the impact we have on the ground. It’s extremely rewarding to participate in that transformation.”
“We were blown away by the taste and variety,” Ziba founders Patrick Johnson and Raffi Vartanian say of their first exposure to Afghan cuisine. “We knew we wanted everyone to enjoy this discovery in the same way we did.”