One Berlin start-up wants consumers to reconsider how they see places like Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. But do we really know what we're getting when want to shop ethically?
Salem El-Mogadeddi and Gernot Würtenberger are men on a mission. From their airy offices in Berlin's hip Kreuzberg district, this pair of entrepreneurs has two goals that are nothing if not ambitious. They want to sell the West on products from conflict zones, while shifting the traditional narrative of war, backwardness and poverty.
The idea for their start-up, Conflictfood, began as a vacation last year to Afghanistan, where El-Mogadeddi's parents were born before emigrating to Germany decades ago, and where his father still returns to assist humanitarian projects. The two visited a women's collective that had not only turned acres of opium fields into a saffron plantation, but was also completely independent and self-regulated.
"We were so impressed by this concept, which at first felt like it didn't fit at all in Afghanistan," El-Mogadeddi told DW. But after some consideration, a plan began to form for a new business venture. "And so we asked if it wouldn't be disruptive to the local market to bring some saffron with us and sell it in Germany."
El-Mogadeddi and Würtenberger gave up jobs in the fashion world and architecture, respectively, to focus full-time on Conflictfood
Although Conflictfood has only existed in earnest since May, 2016, Würtenberger and El-Mogadeddi have received two powerful boosts. First, they won the prestigious Next Organic Startup award without a finished product to show the jury. Swiftly thereafter, they earned a place at an incubator for ethically conscious start-ups called Social Impact Lab – and access to its considerable resources for entrepreneurs.
A new narrative
This has given the team a chance to expand the original dream to include a second objective, one they insist is just as important as any economic impact – adding nuance to people's understanding of conflict zones, often painted in reductive, broad strokes as bomb-laden basket cases. To that end, Conflictfood not only maintains a blog on its website promoting the less-heard stories of Afghanistan, and now, the Palestinian territories, but also includes a short newspaper along with each of its products.
"Last year all of European media reported the shocking story of a woman who was stoned to death [in Afghanistan] on ideological grounds," said Würtenberger, clearly frustrated, "and yet no one knew that the very next day, thousands and thousands of women filled the streets of Kabul in protest."
The co-founders insist that they do not want to be emissaries of Western capitalism, even admitting that they still cannot be sure if they can rely solely on Conflictfood to support themselves. They also eschew the use of banks and investors, using 21st century methods like stipends and crowdfunding instead.
"We never acted like we had more knowledge then they did. They are the experts, and we've treated them as such," El-Mogadeddi was at pains to make clear.
Würtenberger added that they "don't, like many big companies, travel to a foreign country and demand a certain amount of product in a given time - the chain reaction that creates pressure on the producers and leads to exploitation."
While the pair said that importing products from conflict zones, even the Palestinian territories, was not as difficult as it sounds, given the small amounts they move, but there were other concerns. For example, the lack of infrastructure means there is no way to certify to customers in the West that their products are organic and fair trade (though they assured DW that they are) - something consumers usually want to be sure of it they are paying steep prices to a company that promises to be making a positive impact on the lives of its producers.
The quagmire of socially-conscious consumption
Seals guaranteeing that products are fair trade and organic are just the tip of the iceberg. In an interview with DW, German development expert Christoph Hartmann cautioned that, in general, consumers should always think critically when buying from conflict regions because "institutions to protect the producers are often almost non-existent."
"Also, as a consumer, I want to know, what percentage of my money actually stays in the country and is not just used to finance fancy packaging in Germany."
Hartmann added that "in my experience, in the agriculture sector, connecting workers' collectives to international markets can increase their returns from respective plantations," but at the same time, "we are not going to completely change anyone's life," buying a single product from them.
Considering the overall landscape of development projects, however, the expert concluded: "Personally, I like smaller projects. You may only reach ten people...but you can better make sure that your support does not get lost on the way."
"Afghanistan has almost zero legal exports," Würtenberger said, stressing the need to highlight the country of origin on their products' labels
Next stop: Yemen
"Trading fairly is one small thing we can do to stop a refugee crisis before it begins," said Würtenberger, with an eye to the wars that have sent an unprecedented influx of migrants to Europe in recent years.
To that end, Conflictfood has no plans to slow down once the market for their saffron picks up. Importing freekah, a high-protein grain from the Palestinian territories, is already in the pipeline.
"It's the next quinoa," Würtenberger explained when DW asked if there was a market in Germany for a completely unknown cereal.
After the project is in motion, the co-founders said their next step will be even bigger: helping to develop a fair trade coffee plantation in Yemen, where a bloody civil conflict has been going on for over two years.
"Consumption is a political decision," El-Mogadeddi said with some consideration, before his partner finished the thought: "Consumption can promote conflict, but we as consumers also have a lot of power to promote ethical production in what we chose to buy."